Thursday, June 7, 2012
The cover of a book communicates. Not the cover of a new one. A used one. There are any number of books in our library at home that show much loving abuse. I think of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Little Big Man and Edwin Mullhouse and many others.
And--as you can see--Ray Bradbury's 1957 novel Dandelion Wine, a book both Joyce and I have read, taught, loaned to others, loved, abused. (Her underlinings mingle with mine--teaching me.) Surely it is one of the first books that sent us off on one of our "author tours": When we were teaching at Lake Forest College (1978-1979), we drove one day to Waukegan, Illinois (only about eight miles away), Bradbury's birthplace and the setting for Dandelion Wine, his somewhat autobiographical collection of related stories about growing up in what he called "Green Town" in the summer of 1928.
I related in so many ways to that book (though I was born a generation later). At age 12, I, too, was living in a small town (much smaller: Hiram, Ohio), where there were fields and woods and eccentric people populating both. I, too, had an imagination fired by books--and (because I was born later) by radio and movies and television. I, too, had a brother (well, two of them) whose "take" on my fantasy life was ... well ... somewhere on the continuum between disdain and disbelief.
And Dandelion Wine brought all of it back. The opening sentences, the ones that evoke that most delicious of times: the end of school, the first day of summer ...
It was a quiet morning, the town covered over with darkness and at ease in bed. Summer gathered in the weather, the wind had the proper touch, the breathing of the world was long and warm and slow. You had only to rise, lean from your window, and know that this indeed was the first real time of freedom and living, this was the first morning of summer.
Douglas Spaulding, twelve, freshly wakened, let summer idle him on its early-morning stream. Lying in this third-story cupola bedroom, he felt the tall power it gave him, riding high in the June wind, the grandest tower in town.
The novel--not science fiction, not in the usual, conventional sense of that term--deals with Douglas Spaulding's summer--with the changes he undergoes, the experiences and people that prompt those changes, with the slow closing of summer, the arrival of fall.
Such quotidian things invested with such profound meaning! How about buying a new pair of tennis shoes? (In Bradbury's day--and well into mine--all rubber-soled play shoes were "tennis shoes"; I wore them all through boyhood though I did not play tennis until I was ... 12 years old.) And how about the construction of a "Happiness Machine"? Or the moving away of a dear friend? The bottles of dandelion wine in the basement? The fear of the very elderly? The quiet arrival of death? It's all in Dandelion Wine--all and so much more.
And remember Miss Loomis? Who says, When you're seventeen you know everything. When you're twenty-seven if you still know everything you're still seventeen (108). I remember talking about that line with my students--who were 13 and accelerating toward the stage of knowing everything ...
The novel begins and ends in the same place--Douglas' bedroom. Dawn to dark. Lying there, at the end, he thinks of the dandelion wine, bottled in the basement. And he fears that he will forget all the days of the summer that has passed. And then realizes ...
And if he should forget, the dandelion wine stood in the cellar, numbered huge for each and every day. He would go there often, stare straight into the sun until he could stare no more, then close his eyes and consider the burned spots, the fleeting scars left dancing on his warm eyelids; arranging, rearranging each fire and reflection until the pattern was clear ....
So thinking, he slept.
And, sleeping, put an end to Summer, 1928.
I read all of Bradbury's books--even the later, weaker ones. For quite a few years I taught my eighth graders his story "All Summer in a Day"(about the cruelty children can inflict on one another), and on Halloween I liked to read aloud to them "The October Game" (about a children's Halloween party game in the basement, a game that goes very, very wrong).
But it was to Dandelion Wine that I always returned ...
One summer--in the mid-1970s--Joyce and I, fully in the book's thrall at the time, decided we would make dandelion wine. We got a recipe from a colleague (Mrs. K, for those of you who know her), gathered dandelions in our yard, made some wine, put it in the basement. Waited ... waited ...
But fear defeated curiosity. Both of us were afraid to drink it. And so it sat and sat until, about to move in 1978, we poured it down the sink.
And was that the wine's gurgle in the drain? Or Bradbury's laugh? And would his words of admonition be, You cannot taste if you do not drink?