This was a surprise. I picked up a paperback copy of this novel because I’ve been thinking for some time that I ought to be rereading Bradbury and bought the first one I found. I paid very little for it, because clumps of pages were already falling out: it was clearly a much loved copy. I was expecting 1950s science fiction: I read a novel about 1920s small-town mid-West life from a schoolboy’s perspective, completely soused in what we’d now call a Spielbergian wash of sentiment and cosiness. It would have been sickeningly sweet had it not been for the murders, the unknown stalker after dark, and the very curious beginning in which Douglas Spaulding sets the summer going by turning off all the town lights before dawn by puffing into the air.
These moments of horror and fantasy do most of the work to prevent Dandelion Wine turning into a mush of all-American family gloop like The Waltons, or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg Ohio. I enjoyed and read Dandelion Wine right through to the end, whereas I have tried twice to read Winesburg Ohio because it is a modern American classic and has been reprinted oodles of times by respectable literary publishers, to force down the gullets of America’s schoolchildren, but it was dreary, pretentious toil. Dandelion Wine needs the touches of darkness to ground its fantastical, lush prose and the spectacular inner life experienced by Douglas Spaulding, aged 12, and his younger brother Tom.
Like Winesburg Ohio, Dandelion Wine is a series of linked vignettes and moments in the summer of 1928 in Greenville, Illinois. When Doug has an existential awakening and realises that he is actually, really and truly alive, the summer kicks off and wonders begin to happen. Some are small-scale and merely friendly: when the trolley bus is about to be retired, before the buses come in, the driver takes the town’s children on a picnic to use all the lines for the last time, right through into the woods and countryside.
Several are sympathetic but tough about getting old, and its failures. Journalist Bill Forrester falls in love with Helen Loomis from her photo in the local paper where he has come to work, but he hasn’t realised that the paper has been using this photo for nigh-on seventy years. They keep company every afternoon for a fortnight, talking about everything, and she takes him travelling with her in her memories. An old lady who has hoarded and kept everything she once owned is shocked when the little girls who play in her back yard refuse to believe that she was ever as young as they. They take her gifts and come back for more, but they won’t believe she is anything except the shrivelled old woman on the doorstop, calling plaintively for someone to remember her.
Two maiden ladies decide impulsively to buy an electric car, and drive it joyously through the streets until somehow one of their neighbours falls under its wheels. They hide in their house, terrified and ashamed, and only believe they haven’t committed murder when there isn’t anything about it in the paper. A colonel of the Civil War lives in a house with no furniture, only a bed and telephone, which he uses to ring his friend Jorge in Mexico City, and listen to the sounds of the street life that he will never see again.
And then there is horror, a shocking, sensational event in the summer idyll. Lavinia Nubbs defies the murders committed by the nameless and faceless Lonely One, and walks home right through the ravine at night on her way back from the movies. She and Francine have discovered Rosmary’s body there earlier on their way to the movie theatre, but once the police were called, Lavinia refused to give in to fear and dragged her friends out to laugh and be happy like they’d planned. Even when The Lonely One does confront her, she will not be intimidated.
All these stories affect Doug’s awareness of passing time, now that he can see himself in a stream of time rather than always in the one place at the same age. The fact that someday people won’t be here any longer, that death happens, even to his grandmother, is the central theme. It’s a marvellous and enriching novel, with plenty of oddness to sharpen the taste.