My first encounter with Dandelion Wine was in a high school creative writing class. The teacher, not the kindest I ever experienced, wanted us to read Ray Bradbury’s novel (actually more a collection of linked tales) about growing up during a summer in Greentown, Illinois in 1928. It was 1984, my friends and I were far too sophisticated and modern to be interested in nostalgia for small-town America in a simpler time, and besides, it was a creative writing class and we wanted to write, not read. We read as little of the book as we could get away with, perhaps not any of it.
Jump forward a few years, and I’m participating in the National Undergraduate Literature Conference, reading a paper that I’d written. The guest of honor for the conference is none other than Ray Bradbury. He’s funny and engaging and friendly and I have great intentions to read more of his work. But I’m also a college student, busy with studies and intercollegiate debate and pining after girls that didn’t want to give me the time of day. So my intention to read Bradbury goes by the wayside.
Well since then, I’ve put my life in a different order, and part of that is time for reading. I’ve enjoyed other Bradbury titles, classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles, but Dandelion Wine is still sitting on the shelf, teasing me. One day, sadly the day that Bradbury died after a long and productive writing life, I finally decide it is time to go back to Greentown.
It turns out, of course, that I love the book. The predominant themes are the passage of time and aging, that I’m perhaps more prepared at this point in life to appreciate. Other tales address our youthful sense of wonder, the power and spread of fear, and the pursuit of happiness. In one particularly memorable tale, an old woman tries to convince the neighborhood children that she was young like them once. They laugh at her. She produces memorabilia to prove her argument, and they accuse her of stealing it from other children and take it from her, ultimately goading her into burning a box of her most precious mementos. It’s a perfect example of how Bradbury can blend horror and nostalgia and wonder and philosophy all into the same little tale.
Bradbury captures the wonder of summer vacation for an American child perfectly, especially if you can remember the days when kids played games like kick-the-can in their neighborhoods until after dark, a time when the biggest thing to fear was the scary stories that we frightened each other with in the night. He captures the lengthy twilight hours, the warm nights where anything seemed possible. Looking back, my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s had more in common with the childhood of the 1920s that Bradbury describes than contemporary childhood, with all its technology, its early exposure to adult concepts, and the real and perceived dangers that keep most kids in their houses.
While he’s often shelved in the fantasy/science fiction section, Bradbury is a writer for all readers. Yes, his work touches on speculative fiction, but he’s more about finding the wonder and magic in everyday life. Whether his setting is future Mars or bygone American small towns, his real subject is about the wonder of what it is to be human.
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