Rating: 4 stars
Read for The Reader’s Room Winter Challenge
I read Something Wicked This Way Comes a little over a year ago and really loved it. I bought a bunch of Ray Bradbury books on the back of it, including the first of the Green Town books. I used it to tenuously fulfill the requirements of The Reader’s Room Snakes and Ladders Winter Challenge for square 47: a work of fiction featuring food.
It’s tenuous because food isn’t the focus of Dandelion Wine. Growing up and understanding your place in the world is the theme of the book. But as Bradbury says in the essay that introduces this edition of the book, the dandelion wine of the title is an allegory that flows through the story, representing youth as the summer of life. Other foods do the same thing, from the fox grapes and berries the boys and their father pick at the start of the book, to the peaches and crab apples that Doug daydreams about, and an unusual flavour of ice cream that Doug eats with Mr Forrester. Food here isn’t consumed or cooked or shared as a means of moving the story along, but instead is part and parcel of life. The fruits picked and the wine made in summer have the power to bring that summer back to mind when winter comes. It’s quite beautiful.
Also beautiful is the passage where Doug, set on having new tennis shoes for summer, pulls Mr Sanderson the shoe store owner into his passion for new shoes. Anyone for whom trainers, or sneakers, or runners, or whatever it is you call them, have a significant place in life will understand Doug’s need for the new pair. His description of how it feels to put on a new pair of trainers is spot on. The spring it gives you, the power to run faster, jump higher, walk taller. The cool freshness of new sponge supporting your feet. Mr Sanderson is pulled back to his own youth by Doug’s poetic enthusiasm.
As with Something Wicked, Bradbury’s writing transported me to Doug and his younger brother Tom’s world. The prose rattles and bubbles along when it needs to, and slows to reverie when magic happens. The imagination of children is magical, the flights into another world while still keeping a foot in the reality around them. It’s something we put away too firmly when we take the step into being adults. Books like this one bring that childlike knowledge of the world back to memory.
The episodic quality of the book made me think of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegone books and L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables. The chapters are more like vignettes, or short stories, than elements in a narrative flow, but they run together well and the looseness of the connections between episodes suits the reminiscence style.
Time travel runs through the book via the power of memory, whether it’s listening to the reminiscences of house bound man who longs for the freedom of his past and finds a kind of youth reborn in his audience of boys, or travelling on the trolley bus for the last time and thinking about all the journeys the trolley has taken and all the journeys it will never take. A reverse time travel story features the bullying of Mrs Bentley by two girls who refuse to believe that someone so old could ever be young. I found that story cruel. The love story between Mr Forrester and Miss Loomis is a beautiful piece of writing that also takes in time travel, mixed with reincarnation and the yearning for things that could have been. I think that was my favourite story in the book. It made me think of our capacity for love and the way time and coincidence controls the way we can express our love.
A thread of fear is present in the form of The Lonely One, who haunts The Ravine and makes the women of the town wary of being out late at night. His first mention comes when Doug stays out too late, causing his mum and younger brother to go to The Ravine in search of him. He’s an unreal character for the boys, who invent spooky stories about him, trying to scare each other, until the night Doug sees the body of a murdered woman and a dead man stretchered out of another woman’s house late at night. The tension in the story where The Lonely One possibly meets his end is delicious. I wanted to skip past it, but I also wanted to read it and couldn’t look away. It reminded me of being seven or eight, when one of my favourite books was a book of spooky tales that I read over and again late at night to thrill myself. My favourite was the retelling of The Teeny Tiny Woman. I wish I still had that book, but its spine fell apart, and I can’t remember the title. I love Ray Bradbury for giving me that feeling back.
Through all these fearful things, and through experiences of loss, Doug becomes aware of his own mortality, and it has an intense impact on him. It takes the magical intervention of the local junk man to snap Doug out of it.
Towards the end of the book, food comes to the fore again, with a family meal cooked by Doug’s grandma. She is a legendary cook.
When everyone’s mouths were absolutely crammed full of miracles, Grandmother sat back and said, ‘Well, how do you like it?’
And the relatives, including Aunt Rose, and the boarders, their teeth deliciously mortared together at this moment, faced a terrible dilemma. Speak and break the spell, or continue allowing this honey-syrup food of the gods to dissolve and melt away to glory in their mouths?
At the same time as Grandma is conjuring magical dishes for her family’s enchantment, Doug is savouring the smells and sights in the pantry, enjoying its mouth watering delights.
He saw bread waiting to be cut into slices of warm summer cloud, doughnuts strewn like clown hoops from some edible game. The faucets turned on and off in his cheeks. Here on the plum-shadowed side of the house with maple leaves making a creek-water running in the hot wind at the window he read spice-cabinet names.
Food here is a reason for continuing to live. It speaks of far off lands, and opportunities waiting to be taken in the world. It is sustenance and its consumption a near religious experience. It isn’t taken for granted, but nor is it to be questioned.
I really enjoyed reading Dandelion Wine. It was nostalgic for a different way of life, but realistic about what that life was like. It presents childhood as a time of magic and transition, and explores the relationship between young and old, and how it feels to be old in the face of rude youth.