“Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered…. Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in.” These are lines early in Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.
I wasn’t sure what book to recall up from my library to write about next, but a beer I recently bought, Unita Brewing Co. “Birthday Suit 22” a sour plumb Abbey ale, got me thinking about memories unlocked by specific tastes and aromas. I knew at some point I’d get around to writing about Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, but it is a book about summer, and here it is fall and nearly winter for many. But Dandelion Wine is also a book about looking back on preserved memory from the distance of time and season. The dandelion wine 12 year-old protagonist Douglas Spaulding helps his grandfather make in the cellar are the distilled sweet memories of summer and of youth. So what could be more fitting than to open up this “bottle” now, when fires are in our fireplaces and we gather with family to reminisce around the holidays?
I first read Dandelion Wine in high school, this very Bantam Books edition was either my brother’s or a family friend’s and I read it for pleasure. While primarily known for science fiction, this novel by Bradbury is about a boy’s summer of 1928 in upper Midwest. It is an unashamed sentimental indulgence of nostalgia, at times of almost sickeningly sweet proportion. While it is a novel, it reads similar to a book of short stories involving the characters Douglas encounters in his summer of 1928. The book begins with Douglas excitedly conducting the opening symphony of summer from his third story cupola bedroom window. Soon after, on a berry-picking expedition with his father and brother, we get the core thrust of the novel when Douglas becomes acutely aware of his being fiercely alive in a mortal world. It is a novel that hits every single note of every Midwestern summer ever sung—firecrackers, baseball, Eskimo Pies, best friends, fireflies, the feeling of wearing new sneakers, of glorious dinners with grandparents, of the music of lawns being mown, the peace of sitting on porch swings. As Douglas navigates his summer we encounter other characters in the small Midwestern Green Town, modeled after Bradbury’s own home of Waukegan, IL. A couple characters, such as “The Lonely One”, a killer on the loose who is said to lurk around the ravine, are threaded throughout to give the novel a more traditional story line, and a dark one at that. People indeed die, both by natural causes and murder, and this helps pull the rosy nostalgia back to Earth.
One of the memorable chapters of the novel that I stuck with me 30 years ago involve the character Leo Auffmann and his attempt at inventing a “happiness machine.” A married man with children, Leo dreams of and succeeds in creating a box that when one enters, gives people the illusion of being in Paris, Rome, seeing the Sphinx, of smelling sweet perfume and the joy of dancing. But when his doubtful wife tries it for the first time, the brief happiness she experiences gives way to profound sadness. She finds that those illusions underscore the reality that she will never visit Paris or Rome, that good things do not have a constant place in life, and that she hasn’t danced with her husband in twenty years. His wife asks him to contemplate on the real “happiness machine” which after some deliberation, he concludes is this:
The message is that the most reliable mode of happiness is love and family, of experiencing the life right under your nose, rather than every reaching for the fantasy of the unattainable.
Another memorable chapter concerns a “time machine” which turns out to be Colonel Freeleigh and his ability to tell stories from the past: a 1910 Chinese magician’s show at the Boston theater, fighting Indians on the plains in 1875, Antietam, Shiloh, and other battles of the Civil War. Later the Colonel re-appears in a chapter in which the children listen to the sounds of Mexico City via a long distance telephone. “He listened to the hooting of many metal horns, the squeaking of brakes, the calls of vendors selling red-purple bananas and jungle oranges in their stalls.”
Another chapter concerns itself with the joy and fascination with riding in Miss Fern and Miss Green’s electric “Green Machine” motorcar. In another we ride the town trolley to a magical end-of-the-line destination where the tracks virtually disappear into the wild-flowered countryside, literally ending with the lines, “Kick-the-can after supper?” asked Charlie. “Sure.” Said Douglas. “Kick-the-can.” As the summer progresses, Douglas helps his grandfather bottle new batches of dandelion wine to store away. With brief interludes, Douglas also catalogues his summer with a notepad and Ticonderoga pencil, often after discussions with his brother Tom before going to bed at night. In one of these late night catalogue sessions he experiences the realization that the impermanence of machines and friendships and life also applies to himself.
Each chapter is in a sense a sentimental bottle of dandelion wine poured out from the writer’s memory. In another writer’s hand it could be too cloyingly sweet. Somehow it’s either balanced just right, or we give the writer a pass and indulge ourselves in the nostalgia anyway. Besides, rather than write nostalgia for nostalgia sake, Bradbury’s primary message is a call to passionately live each moment to its fullest. Each memory in that summer of youth, the good and bad together, are the makeup of the fleeting experience of being and feeling alive. Published in 1957, this lust for life theme is not all that different from the Beat Writers of that era, although the style and subject matter are vastly different.
Now, about that beer I mentioned. A month or so ago I bought Unita Brewing Company’s “Birthday Suit 22”, a Sour Plum Abbey Ale. I am not one of these sour heads who do back flips for sour beers, but I do really like them here and there. When I bought the bottle I was not aware that the “Birthday Suit” series is brewed on Unita’s anniversary, meaning they are a one-time only affair. As it turns out, the “22” that I happened to find on the shelf of a local market was 2015’s “Birthday Suit”. Tasting the beer at first took me back decades to a barely remembered taste and aroma I could not quite put my finger on. Was it the essence of drinking fall leaves? of plum wine? of a trip up into my grandfather’s attic (in short, just the slightest hint of decay)? It was a taste buried deep in my memory and now front and center on my tongue. The beer is crisp, not overly sour or tart, nor is it sharp on the tongue. Finally I believed I had identified the taste—it was the distinct essence of fermented plums, similar to the floral aroma of Slivovice Plum Brandy found in the Czech Republic (and surely going under numerous other aliases in other countries). The beer was like a tart, sparkling plum cider that had been hand-made in some cellar. It was so evocative of orchard stone fruit, of monks following the summer’s sour ale task of racking the wild fermented beer onto the fruit. I couldn’t help but be transported into the inner workings of an abbey. I have never been to Belgium (technically for a day, yes) but I have been to Prague a number of times and immediately thought of the Strahov Monastery and the orchard on the slope below. It made me think of my grandfather’s farm, of fruit kept in hand woven baskets attracting yellow jackets and wasps. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a beer that so forced me to search my memory for an essence I had experienced in my past, now revisited by pouring it out of a bottle and into a glass. And for that experience alone, I really enjoyed this beer.
Almost needless to say, I bought the last remaining bottle on the shelf the following day. I also bought Unita’s “Birthday Suit 23” which is a Sour Raspberry Ale—a beer I didn’t enjoy the same experience with. The raspberry essence is there but is so dry I thought of raspberry more in the sense of woody cane and leaf (like raspberry tea), rather than the sweet fruit itself. It really just boils down to preference, and the sour plum happened to strike a chord with me. The only problem now is that with only one bottle on hand, I’ll be hesitant to drink it. The good news is that it has inspired me to try my hand at brewing a sour plum Belgian ale when the summer fruit hits the stands.
So there is the tie-in with Dandelion Wine, a beer that makes your DNA tingle with inherent memories of fall leaves, the earth, fruit, and the centuries old practice of brewing wild beers with fruit. And dandelion wine, being a real thing, must be equally distinct in the essence it conveys. The novel may be sweet with the fabled childhood through the eyes of a 12 year old boy, ripe with the Americana of a rosy Midwestern experience, but it too, in just the right measure, is balanced with death and decay.