A heat wave has descended on my hometown (ugh), which is the best indication that summer has settled in and will be staying around for a while. At the same time, that means that the search for great summer reading is underway! While many of the books I’ve talked about so far on this blog aren’t exactly easy reading while you’re at the beach–although I did spend the summer of 2017 reading Crime and Punishment–that doesn’t mean there aren’t some classic novels out there that will entertain you through the scorching weeks ahead.
With that in mind, I’d suggest dusting off I finished just two weeks ago, Ray Bradbury’s short novel Dandelion Wine (1957). It was such a pleasant surprise reading it, and it ties in so well with summertime, that I knew even before I had finished it that gushing over Dandelion Wine was going to be an upcoming blog post.
You might know Bradbury from his frightening Fahrenheit 451, which depicted a dystopia obsessed with burning books. Unlike that novel, Dandelion Wine, at least on the surface, is much milder and has a wide-eyed innocence in its writing style. After all, it’s a coming-of-age story, vividly depicting the life of small-town boy Douglas Spaulding over the summer of 1928. But as the novel progresses, you’ll discover that Bradbury has a knack for revealing insights–some of them dark–into the human mind, all the while maintaining a veneer of nostalgia.
Twelve-year-old Douglas, his family, and the other residents of Green Town, Illinois, spend the summer of 1928 caught up in pastimes that sound alien from our world today: bottling the titular dandelion wine, calculating the air temperature from cicada chirps, and visits to the downtown soda fountain.
It all seems quite idyllic, but these happy moments are interspersed with chapters dwelling on the less-than-perfect aspects of growing up and life in Green Town. One of Douglas’s closest friends has to move out of town, his great-grandmother passes away, and Douglas himself comes to realize his own mortality.
In the world outside of Douglas, a serial killer called The Lonely One preys on the women of Green Town (so much for the idyllic life), and a local man’s attempt to construct, of all things, a “Happiness Machine” doesn’t have the perfect consequences he think the contraption will have on his family. There’s also a bizarre chapter concerning a feud among two members of the Honeysuckle Ladies Lodge, which reveals that once you really get to know the denizens of Green Town, you find they’re far from the perfect figures of nostalgia they appear to be in the earlier parts of this novel.
A distinguishing feature of Dandelion Wine is its unorthodox structure. While the summer progresses in order (June, July August, September), the events Bradbury describes are presented in a jumble, often with no relation to one another. After reading Dandelion Wine, I discovered that some of the chapters were originally short stories, which partly explains this odd narrative form. The disconnected pattern reinforces the idea that this novel is more of a collection of fictional memories, which anyone who’s had a long-treasured summer can relate to.
One final note: traveling over the summer is, of course, super popular. But the magic of a well-written novel like Dandelion Wine is that it lets you take a vacation just by opening up a book. As the days get hotter, consider journeying back in time to Green Town.