Two summers ago, with pitiless premeditation, I threw open the windows of the bedroom across the hall and tortured my children, leading them by their trusting hands toward Death, their screams rising heavenward in an oblation of terror.
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I was reading to them. The instrument of my cruelty was Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine.
Summer, 1928. Lavinia Nebbs, young and headstrong, returning home from the Charlie Chaplin picture show at Green Town’s Elite Theater, drops off her friends, defies their warnings that the Lonely One is afoot and heads in ink-dark night to the teeth of the town ravine. Across the deep divide, down 113 steps, over a bridge and up the other side lies home, safety.
Bradbury, her Virgil, who saw his first film — Lon Chaney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame — at age 3 in the real-life Elite at 125 N. Genesee Street, Waukegan, Illinois, crouched as if in nearby elmshadow to capture Lavinia’s fright with the filmmaker’s eye and ear.
The crickets were listening. The night was listening to her. For a change, all of the far summer-night meadows and close summer-night trees . . . were listening to Lavinia Nebbs’ heart. And perhaps a thousand miles away across locomotive-lonely country, in an empty way station, a single traveler reading a dim newspaper under a solitary naked bulb, might raise up his head, listen, and think, What’s that? and decide, Only a woodchuck, surely, beating on a hollow log. But it was Lavinia Nebbs. It was most surely the heart of Lavinia Nebbs.
And it was the pounding hearts of my three oldest children, too, when Lavinia, her senses surrendered to the surreal, locks and bolts her front door and behind her in the living room someone clears his throat.
Snap! I shut the book. Time for bed. Cue screams of terror . . . and irritation and disbelief. Another 24 hours before story time with Ray Bradbury would continue. My smile couldn’t have been any bigger, to borrow again from Bradbury, than “the smile of the Reaper taking his fee.”
Of course, we didn’t stop there. My wife wouldn’t stand for it. Though she wasn’t present at its creation, she had become part of the ritual: The summertime reading of Dandelion Wine. My own ritual that began when I was 12, the same age as Douglas Spaulding, the boy-antihero of Bradbury’s autobiographical fantasy.
Douglas, toeing the outer edges of childhood, marks his life with ritual. Summer doesn’t start with solstice and end with equinox, but begins with the last howling June explosion of children out the schoolhouse door. He spends the night in his grandparent’s cupola bedroom and wakens, “a whole summer ahead to cross off the calendar, day by day.” Standing at the open window moments before dawn, he scans treetops, breathes out street lights and, with magic in his fingers, orders Green Town awake and alive.
Later that morning another ritual, and a discovery. Picking fox grapes with Dad and Tom, his younger brother, in a forest outside town, Douglas discovers life in Tom’s knuckles and the taste of his own warm blood. In the afternoon, a harvest of dandelions and a dime for every sack the boys deliver to his grandfather’s press.
Dandelion wine. “The words were summer on the tongue,” Bradbury writes.
“The wine was summer caught and stoppered. And now that Douglas knew, he really knew he was alive, and moved turning through the world to touch and see it all, it was only right and proper that . . . some of this special vintage day would be sealed away for opening on a January day with snow falling fast and the sun unseen for weeks or months and perhaps some of the miracle by then forgotten and in need of renewal.”
Douglas was my kind of kid: Curious and sincere, alert to a world suffused with invisible magic, open to everything but the best at nothing, and a heart like a wine cellar.
I almost missed out on his friendship. Reading the book was my mother’s idea, and I, too, was toeing boyhood’s outer edges. Suburban Elysium was losing its charm. Every chance to buckle up and see something new outside a car window, I took. We had TV, a big yard, kids around when they weren’t at camp, a neighborhood swimming pool, unused league-soccer fields, bike paths and a manmade lake. But no trolley. No Main Street five-and-dime, no cupola bedrooms, no haunted house on the edge of town, no mystery, no adventure, no ravine. No ravine.
My schoolteacher mom was an endless supply of reading suggestions. But I was older now than the kids she taught and therein lay my skepticism. Dad’s endorsement helped. He was a wire-service writer who disappeared on a bus every morning with a book peeking out of his tote. But it was my mother, convinced of some need she found in my face, who wouldn’t relent. One chapter, just one chapter, and she threatened to read it to me out loud! Douglas, walking home after a late movie, sets his heart on a pair of Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Tennis Shoes: “LIKE MENTHOL ON YOUR FEET!” The ad copy sang to Douglas, and to me.
“Find friends, ditch enemies! . . . Does the world run too fast? Want to catch up? Want to be alert, stay alert? Litefoot, then! Litefoot!”
I had to slip my subdivision life, and I needed the right pair of shoes to take me.
Most covers I’ve seen for Bradbury’s novel paean to summer feature a dandelion, and too often some idiot designer who clearly hasn’t read a word of it chooses the white, cottony, see-you-next-year kind. But the deep golden-yellow paperback I found at a bookstore — Bantam Books revised edition, 11th printing, 1982 — got it right. A blue-shirted lad in suspendered knickers and newsboy cap stands in epiphany on a dandelion-carpeted corridor walled in by heat and the sun-baked tallgrass of high summer. Over one shoulder the branches of a thirsty willow fade into the thin outline of a grand, old, empty house.
I still have that copy and may ask to be buried with it. The back cover’s missing; the front is a traveling companion. Page 91 has likewise declared independence from the cheap, mass-market binding but somehow stuck around for duty, tattered on its right edge.
Summer vacation began with a reading, often on a trip. Age 14, Cape Cod. Age 15, St. Maarten. Now I was getting somewhere. I read it every summer well into high school then put it away, thinking maybe the time had come to move on.
As a boy, Bradbury had discovered magic as much inside the ancient tomes of literary incantations he found on the subterranean shelves of Waukegan’s Carnegie Library as in the scent of crumbling endpapers and the dust on leathery covers. When he turned 12 — Douglas’ age — a favorite uncle died at summer’s end around the same time a carnival magician named Mr. Electrico touched his sword to Bradbury’s tingling head and shouted, “Live forever!” Days later he began writing and, he says, never stopped.
That was 1932. Bradbury was born in 1920 when Waukegan was a thriving Lake Michigan town flooding with immigrant labor from Italy and Eastern Europe. Ever the magic realist, he has long claimed to remember his own birth. But there’s no doubt he was alert to the births and deaths around him: the first local radio broadcast, the final ride of Waukegan’s last horse-drawn cab. Johns-Manville opened an asbestos plant, then a symbol of the city’s vitality. But when the Depression hit, 1,000 Waukeganites lost their jobs in the first year. The city snuffed street lights to save money. In 1934, Bradbury’s father, in search of stable employment, moved his family from Waukegan to Los Angeles, where Lon Chaney, the subject of the author’s earliest boyhood fascination, had died just a few years before.
In Douglas Spaulding, Bradbury aligns his own awakening with the last year of Waukegan’s prosperity. As Douglas marvels at life, he finds everyone trying to preserve it: His grandfather’s wine; his brother’s pencil-and-tablet tallies of summer joys and rituals; the neighbor who builds a happiness machine. The book itself is a bottle full of a place that no longer existed except in the memory of “the world’s greatest living science fiction writer” as Green Town, Illinois.
Readers had visited Green Town before. In The Martian Chronicles (1950), desperate Martians use telepathy, hypnosis and nostalgia for hometowns like “Green Bluff, Illinois” to lure Captain John Black and his crew into believing they’d touched down in the happiest summers of their childhoods. Then they kill them. Later, in a pair of October novels, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and The Halloween Tree (1972), Green Town boys conquer Death with sacrificial courage and laughter.
But in Dandelion Wine (1957), Douglas confronts death, unstoppable, in life’s high season. The elderly leave the young with final gifts and depart. Lavinia Nebbs meets the Lonely One. Douglas’ best friend moves away. And Douglas himself, consumed by deadly fever, must concede that summer cannot last forever, lest it simply finish him off.
None of that explains why I picked up summer’s book and revived the ritual with my children. Maybe it’s that my oldest, a boy then on the cusp of 9, was already reading ahead of his father’s nightly curriculum and I sensed somewhere a cupola window slowly shutting. Maybe it was the way Bradbury could write even horror and death with genuine lyrical joy. Or maybe it’s that I felt myself too far from a friend and needed to share him with others as someone who had become a part of me.
All I know is, it was a hell of a lot of fun. You can’t read Bradbury without feeling and flair. Dandelion Wine is no children’s book, but the kids were right there with Doug and John Huff and Charlie Woodman, sitting at Colonel Freeleigh’s feet on the Street where all the Old People live, waiting for the story.
Some write the book off as less interesting to serious readers than Bradbury’s science fiction, unworthy of Fahrenheit 451’s place on the occasional American literature syllabus. Bradbury, who turns 91 in August, insists he is no science-fiction writer. He lost that battle with fans, librarians and publishing-house catalogers long ago. But perhaps it’s fair to say that he built the bridge into the genre from the canons of American literature. He reveres Walt Whitman. Reading Bradbury, it’s as if the old man’s eye and fire were reincarnated inside the plain house on Waukegan’s St. James Street.
Whitman had sung young America’s poetic present, through construction and expansion, war and rebirth. Bradbury, born a century after his literary tutor into a world of Civil War cemeteries, courthouse clocks, streetcars and circus sideshows, composed unanticipated prose melodies about its past and its future that converge in Green Town, Illinois, in summer, 1928.
In anticipation of the ritual, my family and I paid a visit to Waukegan in April, a most un-Bradbury month. Under brindled stratus, a photocopy of an old walking tour passing from hand to hand, we stood outside the Carnegie Library’s abandoned husk, and trudged up and down Genesee Street. We ate at the Green Town Tavern, which apart from its name made surprisingly little use of Bradbury’s legacy on its walls and menu. At the “new” public library, Elizabeth Stearns told us about interviewing her favorite son of Waukegan. “He’s childlike in his enthusiasm for life and people, and that makes him utterly charming,” she said. And yet: “He likes to run his hand down death.”
Then we stood at the edge of the ravine. Or, rather, I stood. My children sailed past me down the path of what is now Ray Bradbury Park, toward the footbridge at its bottom while I, feeling something like the Lonely One, counted the uneven stone steps on the steeper side and imagined Lavinia Nebbs halfway down, suffocating in cold panic.
Racing loud and wild along the sodden, greening flats, mud on their sneakers, the children made their breathless way from one end of the ravine to the other. I cleared my throat. The ritual was no longer my own.
John Nagy is an associate editor of Notre Dame Magazine.