Famed as a science-fiction author, Ray Bradbury’s ‘homebound’ novel draws heavily on his own childhood with a horror twist.
Based loosely on Bradbury’s hometown of Waukegan and his childhood adventures in the 1920s the author borrows actual events and names, immersing them into fiction so subtly that you can almost believe the events to be real. Centered around twelve year old Douglas Spaulding growing up in the backwaters of Illinois Dandelion Wine tells the story of the summer of 1928.
In typical Bradbury style, each chapter tells a small but perfectly formed installment of the events that make up Douglas’ summer alongside his brother Tom – younger by two years – their peer group and the documentation of the significant events that make up the long hot season.
A sinister undertone present in the early chapters is soon replaced with the gentle pace of life and observations through the eyes of the young. From Douglas’ grandfather’s annual ritual for making Dandelion Wine to that feeling of wearing new tennis shoes for the first time and how you feel that you can run faster than ever before. The inevitable changes of time too, with the last running of the town tram and the passing of folk who have always been an integral part of life. The most endearing of these is the Colonel, an ancient and decrepit man known affectionately by the boys as The Time Machine. Though often vacant from the current time, when prompted the Colonel can recount momentous stories from decades past in vivid detail.
The book progresses at a meander with other characters fleshing out, what feels like, a tribute in many ways from Bradbury to his childhood memories. I did reach a point where I genuinely felt the story had become too sedate, and it was at exactly that moment Bradbury presents one of the most intense chapters I have ever read in any novel, a thing of pure horror.
Without ever bringing it to the forefront there are sporadic mentions of the Lonely One. For the boys, a deranged curiosity, for the girls a truly terrifying prospect. The Lonely One has been singling out pretty young girls whose bodies will be found strangled, cold, dead. Bradbury turns on the reader so quickly and with such tension that our first encounter with the Lonely One is truly heart-stopping and compelling. Without ever revealing in detail the horror faced the terror is told through the actions of Lavinia Nebbs with the panic and actions of her pursuer, ever implied but never crudely explained. Her night out with friends, her boldness, the uncertainty of events, and the diminishing of her bravery as she walks alone through the blackness of the ravine – the towns natural divide – and the conclusion which leaves the reader hanging and yearning for closure. For this one chapter alone the book enters the realms of brilliance.
Ray Bradbury manages to tell a tale of life that many of us will be able to relate to regardless of which century or decade is being depicted. His genius is in the way he sucks the reader in and surprises us with no warning. Easy to read and gentle in pace Dandelion Wine isn’t sci-fi classic we often associate with the author, rather, a wonderful slice of the world as viewed by a twelve year boy.
Dandelion Wine was first published in 1957.