There are moments in life so special that we stop to try to take in the sights, sounds, and smells before they fade into the past knowing the people, places and emotions are something we will never have again. Ray Bradbury’s semi-autobiographical depiction reminds the reader of the attachments to family, friends, and nature. It was the summer of 1928 in Green Town, Illinois. A twelve year old boy named Douglas Spaulding develops a life-long connection between his home town, memories, and emotions. Doug experiences and observes things which allow him to develop an understanding of the wisdom of adulthood.
Doug Spaulding and his little brother Tom spend much of their time visiting their grandma and grandpa’s boarding house each summer. Grandpa truly appreciates the small joys which come from the world around him such as the smell of recently mowed grass. He passes this and his belief about dandelions being a ‘noble flower’ to his grandsons. One of the children’s favorite summer activities involves the family ritual of making dandelion wine. The dandelion harvest puts a smile on everyone’s face not only because of their ability to view the beauty of nature in the task, but due to the repetitive pictures the yearly tradition instills in the memories of the family members by eliciting emotions and the sights, smells, and sounds of the season. ‘Hold summer in your hand and pour summer in a glass.’ Doug is able to reflect that the life cycle of the dandelion when the yellow flower turns to white fluff reminds one of winter snow. He recalls his grandma going to the cellar in winter months for a sip of dandelion wine as a mode of escape. For him, the wine is a way to use sense of smell, the best way to recollect, in order to revert back to another time. In addition, as an older man, he will still think of his grandma with the wine and know what she and summers in Green Town as a child meant to him.
As readers, we know from Bradbury’s introduction to the novel that the childhood memories are a ‘germination of all the summers of my life.’ At the onset of the season, Doug decides to use two notebooks to record events. He calls the notebooks RITES and CERMONIES and DISCOVERIES and REVELATIONS. Although the character of Douglas grows from innocence to experience over the course of the summer, the kids are extremely mature and his ruminations are at times, beyond the scope of observation for a twelve year old boy. Yet this may be attributed to Bradbury’s writing about his own past as an adult. All of Doug’s reflections are beautiful. For instance, his appreciation for iced-tea, lemonade, and the front porch swing is something kids and adults share. His largest and most important revelation comes when he realizes he is alive. After he knows this, his observations of older people in town lead him to a conclusion later in the summer that changes his young life forever.
In contrast to the blossoming life of Doug, Bradbury introduces Helen Loomis Bentley, an elderly woman nearing to end of her existence. The kids in town don’t believe Helen when she tells them that she was once young as they are now. She feels a sense of sadness in their unwillingness to believe in her shared humanity and her memories of her own childhood. Helen collects trinkets and photos from her past to prove she is telling the truth, but they say she must be lying. The children convince her the past is an illusion. ‘After all once the past was over, it was done. You were always in the present.’ Helen thinks about her dead husband and what he would have told her now. ‘These things don’t belong to you here, you now. They belonged to her, that other her, so long ago.’ Helen’s decision to forget the past instead of holding on to it makes the reader feel truly sad about growing old. It is as if she has no life because in her current circumstances everyone she ever loved is gone. What is Bradbury saying with the story of Helen? As people age and life’s circumstances change, they become distanced from past experiences and memories. Soon, we view our past through a lens as if someone else lived it. Do we really become different people with age and experience? Or is there part of our past we should cling to such as the dandelion wine of our childhood?
One day at the age of ninety-two, Helen walks into the ice cream shop where she meets William Forrester, a twenty year old young man. They have an instant connection. Bill meets Helen at her house for tea and the two of them travel through time(part of the author’s theme of the time machine) to the places she has been through her stories. Looking at Helen, Bill is transfixed by her inner beauty. He has never talked to a woman like her before. ‘To himself he was thinking, you can erase lines, adjust the time factor, turn back the years.’ A few years ago, Bill fell in love with a picture of a young girl in the newspaper, a marshal for the Town Ball. This was the photo Helen posted in the paper each year taken of her a long time ago. Helen’s only true love escaped her in her youth; neither one of them would be tied down. He had been dead for many years. ‘I never thought the day would come when I would see him alive again. ‘Although Bill and Helen are far apart in age, they realize they are soul mates. Yet, after a few weeks of meeting, autumn approaches. Helen begins to write him a letter to say goodbye; she has a sense her time on earth is coming to an end. ‘Time is strange and life is twice as strange. The cogs miss, the wheels turns and lives interlock too early or too late.’ They decide it is possible Helen will be reincarnated as Bill had been before her. Hopefully next time she will be the correct age when she meets him. The next day, she is gone.
After the deaths of Mrs. Loomis and his own great-grandma, Doug recognizes, he too, will die. Doug’s final reflections in his notebook become about the aspects of the psyche which develop in childhood that remain with a person throughout adulthood. Doug, along with all other children, develops feelings of insecurity, fear, and isolation. He writes that you can’t depend upon things to last or people to live. Eventually everything ends. Doug sits alone with a mason jar filled with captured fireflies. It is a metaphor for holding on to innocence and the hope of perfection; the illusion of keeping everything you love. Part of maturation and growth is learning you have to let go of some things and people. They must be released in order to find their own way or come to an end.
The boy releases the fireflies, but keeps his memories. Sometimes it is hurtful to think of the things we can’t have back. Things can’t remain the same not only because we change as people, but because everything and everyone around us changes as well. What is interesting is that if I really consider reliving past times I consider happy or priceless, I definitely would not go back if I could. There will always be a fondness associated with the place I spent my youth. When I think of my family and friends-even, now I smile. Ray Bradbury hit the nail on the head with a novel about seasons, memories, and growing up-regardless of place or emotion every person can relate.
Final Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
For more information:
Fourth volume of short stories: Summer Morning, Summer Night