56 pages 1 hour read

Ray Bradbury

Dandelion Wine

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1957

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Summary and Study Guide


Written by Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine is a collection of connected short stories that are loosely based on the author’s memories of his own childhood in upstate Illinois; as such, the narrative uses the nostalgic mystique of summer to evoke the wonders, adventures, and mysteries of growing up. As the first volume in the Green Town trilogy, which also includes Farewell Summer and Something Wicked This Way Comes, this coming-of-age story includes elements of fantasy, sci-fi, horror, and magical realism. It has been adapted multiple times for film, radio, and stage productions.

Bradbury, a prominent and prolific author, has received numerous honors for his works, including the National Book Award. His writings and their adaptations for the large and small screen have helped to popularize the genres of science fiction and fantasy in the United States, and he has been named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA), along with other such greats as Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

The novel contains breaks between scenes, but no chapters. The 2013 e-book edition forms the basis for this study guide.

Content Warning: Two scenes include references to a “licking,” or the spanking of a child as a punishment delivered by a parent. One scene mentions “Negroes,” an outdated and pejorative term for African Americans that was commonly used in the early and mid-1900s.

Plot Summary

Every year, Green Town resident Douglas Spaulding looks forward to the first day of summer and its promise of freedom, adventure, and outdoor traditions. This summer, he is 12 years old, and the long days of vacation have begun. One day, when Douglas’s father drives him and his brother, Tom, who is 10, to the country to search for grapes and berries, Douglas feels an overpowering sense of aliveness. For the first time, he realizes that he is really alive and appreciates the fact with an intensity that he has never before experienced. In the grip of this private, spiritual epiphany, he vows to fully appreciate all the wonders of everyday life that surround him.

By long tradition, Douglas and Tom collect dandelions from the yard of their grandparents, who live next door. Grandpa squeezes the flowers in a press, adds rainwater from a barrel, and bottles the liquid, which is then sipped in winter as a reminder of warmer times. But now, it is summer, and in Douglas’s mind, summer is the season for wearing tennis shoes, leaping over fences, and running amongst the fields and trees. Douglas saves up his money and does extra chores for the proprietor of the shoe store to obtain a new pair of tennis shoes that are fast and springy enough to let him go leaping into summer.

In another ritual of summer, Douglas helps Grandpa to hang the porch swing, and soon people are congregating on the porch every evening. One day, Douglas’s friends call him away on an evening adventure to the nearby ravine; when Douglas doesn’t return, his mother takes Top and sets out to search for her oldest son. She is worried because a mysterious killer known as the Lonely One is on the loose in town. As they stand in the darkness next to the ravine, Tom realizes that his mom can’t protect him from everything. She calls out to Douglas several times, and finally the boy appears sheepishly.

The narrative shifts to focus on the character of Leo Auffmann, the town jeweler and amateur inventor, who becomes obsessed with building a Happiness Machine. For nearly two weeks he labors over his creation in the garage. When it is finished, its music and images induce joy in those who use it, but they then feel deep sadness when they must return to daily life. Leo’s wife, Lena, tells Leo that the device makes her yearn for things she can’t have. When the machine overheats and explodes into flames, Leo realizes that he already has a Happiness Machine: his home and family.

The narrative introduces 72-year-old Helen Bentley. One day, when Tom and two girls visit her, she shows them a picture of herself as a child, but the kids don’t believe that she was ever anything but an old woman. On a different day, Charlie brings Douglas and John to the house of old Colonel Freeleigh. The colonel delights in telling the boys of his adventures as a young man. For the boys, listening to the old stories is like taking a time machine into the past. Later in the summer, Douglas’s good friend John Huff announces that his family must move to Wisconsin. He and John stretch out a last day together, but, in the end, Douglas feels betrayed. He tries to hate John, but he knows he will always love his friend.

After recounting a brief skirmish between two ladies who vie for the presidency of the local ladies’ organization, the narrative returns to the “Time Machine” who is old Colonel Freeleigh. Telling stories of his past overstimulates his heart, so his son brings in a nurse who keeps watch over him and forbids the young boys to visit him. The colonel takes to dialing old friends in South America and asking them to hold their phones through open windows so he can hear the sounds of the great cities. His nurse tells him that the phone will be removed the next day, and when Douglas and Charlie drop by later, they find him dead, with the phone pressed to his ear.

The narrative shifts to the perspective of Helen Loomis, 95, who strikes up a conversation with the young local journalist, Bill Forrester, in an ice cream parlor when he orders an unusual flavor. Soon, they’re meeting daily in her garden to chat. She regales him with stories of long-ago adventures in cities around the world, and their friendship grows into a chaste May/December romance. One day, she announces that she’ll die shortly. She seals a letter for him; when he receives it, he’ll know that she’s gone. She hopes that somehow they can meet again in another life when they’re both young, perhaps over ice cream. Two days later, he receives her letter.

Three young ladies—Lavinia, Francine, and Helen—walk downtown one warm evening to attend a movie. In the ravine, Lavinia and Francine discover the body of a woman killed by the Lonely One, the murderer at large in the town. She is the third woman strangled in three months. Lavinia believes that they are safe for now, but while walking home alone, she thinks that a man is following her. Terrified, she runs home, only to find the Lonely One himself waiting inside her house. Although the violent action occurs “offstage,” she stabs him with scissors, and his reign of terror ends.

One day, Great-Grandma, 90, looks back at her life, decides it has been a good one, and lays herself down in her bed to die. Although her family protests, she tells them that she has done enough but will still be with them in spirit in everything they do. Following this, Douglas realizes that he can’t rely on things or people because they wear out, leave, or die. He and Tom visit the arcade, where an ancient machine holds the Tarot Witch, whose wax hands move across cards and dispense printed fortunes. Douglas decides that the witch is a woman who has been imprisoned for centuries in wax; he and Tom “rescue” her from the abusive arcade owner, Mr. Black.

Now and then, a man rides past on a Conestoga wagon filled with knick-knacks that people can trade for. The driver, Mr. Jonas, sometimes sits at night with lonely, sleepless people and chats with them. One day, Douglas awakens with a bad fever, and the doctor does not know how to help him. Aggravated by the blazing-hot day and by his sadness about recent losses, Douglas’s fever peaks, and he lapses into unconsciousness. In the evening, his family places him on a cot outdoors, where it’s cooler. Late that night, Mr. Jonas appears with two bottles. He tells the comatose boy that the bottles are filled with cool, refreshing air from faraway places. When Mr. Jonas departs, Douglas wakes up and inhales the magical air. His fever breaks, and he sleeps peacefully.

When Aunt Rose visits the boarding house of Douglas’s grandparents, she tries to improve Grandma’s already delicious cooking by reorganizing the kitchen. Her attempt to help ruins the nightly meals. After Grandpa sends Rose packing, Douglas puts everything in the kitchen back into its disorganized state, and this allows Grandma to regain her cooking magic. When summer ends, Douglas and Tom help Grandpa to bottle the last press of dandelion wine and take down the porch swing. They promise to keep in memory everything that happened to them over the summer. Grandpa knows they’ll eventually forget, but that, for a time, the wine will remember.