dandelion wine

My old paperback copy resting outside in the sun.

Dandelions are having a great time in the backyard next to my house. They are all plotting to reseed my lawn which I have carefully tried to keep dandelion free in the most environmentally-friendly way.

It’s not that I dislike dandelions, but I admit that I have conceded that my suburban home needs to have a normal front lawn. Resale value and all that.

We call them dandelions which is (according to my French-speaking wife) a corruption of the French dent de lion meaning “lion’s tooth.” The French named it that because of those jagged-toothed leaves. Other European languages have similar versions – Italian dente di leone, Spanish diente de león, Portuguese dente-de-leão, Norwegian Løvetann, and German Löwenzahn.

They are only weeds in our suburban brains. You can use the flowers to make a kind of wine, roast the roots to make a coffee-like drink, and use the leaves in salads.

But my thoughts today turned to Dandelion Wine, the novel by Ray Bradbury.  It’s a book I read in junior high and it was part of a whole summer of Bradbury books.

The book is about the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois as seen by a 12 year-old boy named Douglas. Most reviews will tell you that it is semi-autobiographical based on Bradbury’s Waukegan, Illinois memories.

Dandelion wine is made with dandelion flowers and in the novel it is Doug’s grandfather who makes it. The wine is an obvious symbol for the distillation of all the best of the summer – as is the novel.

When I taught middle school, it was a book I kept in my classroom and would occassionally recommend it to students. I think it seemed too small-town America and old-fashioned for most of them. Maybe it is childhood as viewed by an adult.

Though it is based on some of Bradbury’s childhood memories, he always mixes in enough fantasy that no one is going to say it is a “true” story.

The novel (really more like a collection of related stories) is nostalgic and lyrical work and a world viewed through the yellow filter of a bottle of dandelion wine. Still, I recall some serious moments that had me thinking that summer I read it.  Along with the nostalgia, Douglas’ summer also contains his recognition that he will die some day. It’s something that comes with the end of summer, losing companions and his grandfather’s presence.

Another character in the book, Leo, gets annoyed listening to elderly people’s depressing and fatalistic conversations. Douglas and his grandfather suggest, not seriously, to him that he make a Happiness Machine, and he becomes determined to do just that. A happy man with a wife and 6 children, the Happiness Machine almost destroys his life.

I never read Farewell Summer which is the sequel to Dandelion Wine. It wasn’t published until 2006, so it didn’t exist in my own childhood or in my days teaching middle school.  I’m not sure I would pick it up if it was all about the end of summer, growing old and dying. It is set during the “Indian summer” of October and Doug goes from 12 to 14, and is awkened by a first kiss from a girl.  I probably could have used that as a selling point to get my students to read it.

I found some history on the book. The first chapter, also titled “Farewell Summer,” appeared in The Stories of Ray Bradbury in 1980.  Reading reviews of it online, like this one from Booklist: – “A touching meditation on memories, aging, and the endless cycle of birth and death, and a fitting capstone, perhaps, to a brilliant career” – made me think that this was really childhood as seen by an old man. But that isn’t correct.

It seems that  Bradbury said that he originally had intended the novel to follow what we know as Dandelion Wine in one big book he was going to call Summer Morning, Summer Night. A collection of stories was published much later under that name, though I’m not sure it followed Bradbury’s original plan.

“When I delivered it to my publishers they said, ‘My God, this is much too long. Why don’t we publish the first 90,000 words as a novel and keep the second part for some future year when it is ready to be published,'” Bradbury said.

It you wanted a Bradbury summer of reading, I would suggest your third choice be Something Wicked This Way Comes. Even though it has a different plot and characters, it is set in Green Town and has the same feel. Make it the second book in the Green Town trilogy. Apparently, some rather sinister things were happening that Doug might have missed.

It’s a much darker novel of childhood. When you take your title from Macbeth, we know something is up. The line is said by the second witch, “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” The wicked thing is Macbeth – traitor and murderer.

In the novel, two 13 year-old boys, Jim Nightshade and William Halloway, encounter a wicked traveling carnival that comes their way one October. The carnival is run by “Mr. Dark” who wears a tattoo for each person he has rewarded with their secret fantasy. Each of them is also now a permanent part of the carnival. Will’s father’s fantasy is to regain his youth.

There is also a film version of Something Wicked This Way Comes that I really like. It is usually listed as a children’s film (probably because it was made by Disney) and I did watch it with my boys when they were younger than Jim & Will, but it is pretty scary on lots of levels.

I found a recipe for dandelion wine and, if I get ambitious in this summer, maybe I’ll give it a try.  If you make some, let me know.

Pick a gallon of the most perfect, open, bright yellow blossoms. Make sure these aren’t from a lawn that gets treated with chemicals. Do it early in the morning when there is still dew on the flowers. Really. This will make one gallon of wine.

Put the flowers in a two gallon or larger open crock and pour boiling water over them. Cover the crock with cheesecloth and let it sit at room temperature for three days.

Squeeze all the juice from the flowers, throw them away and put the liquid into a big pot. Add to this:
3 lbs. sugar (brown raw sugar is good, but you could try honey for more “essence” of summer)
3 or 4 lemons, juice, skin, seeds and all, just chopped up.
3 or 4 oranges, also chopped

Boil mixture for 30 minutes with top on pot, cool to lukewarm, pour into crock and add 1 1/2 or 2 packages or tablespoons of yeast. Cover with cheesecloth and let brew sit for two or three weeks or until the bubbling stops.

Then filter the liquid through cheesecloth to get out chunks. Bottle up the summer. Drink young. Some on Labor Day seems right. Some on that first cold autumn night. Some for winter. Finish it all before the first day of spring.


Ray Bradbury Official Site

Bradbury writing about Farewell Summer