Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Open Letter to the Late Ray Bradbury

Dear Mr. Bradbury,

Sorry to have missed you!  I've been a fan, to some degree, most of my life.  Some of the first stirrings of the call to write came to me while watching your Ray Bradbury Theater, though it wasn't until my junior year in high school that I began to read you in earnest.  If memory serves it started with reading Farenheit 451 in school, and falling right in love with it.  It's still a great book now, but back then it also fed into my teenage quasi-intellectual rebellion phase.  I promptly devoured The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles in its wake.  There I found stories that pondered the "what-ifs" I myself had pondered, alone or in conversation with my "deeper" friends and family.  You've been one of my heroes ever since.

Now there is another book, however - a book I never read back then, though I wish I had.

Last year, I came across a copy of Dandelion Wine, thinking it would make a nice gift for my young nephew . . . once I'd read it myself, of course. ;^)  Some books you can't just start any old time, though.  One must wait for the right moment, the right mood.  I'm not sure whether it never came, or I simply forgot to watch for it, but it passed me by until I learned of your recent passing.  I dropped the novel I'd started that night and got to work.  It's been slow going, as it's been a busy couple of weeks, but I've just finished tonight, and felt I ought to write about it:  as your hero, Douglas Spaulding does, write down what I've experienced, and then what I've learned from that experience.

Dandelion Wine begins with a lie, right on the front cover.  It calls itself a novel.  It is not.  Nor, as some readers may guess, is it a portmanteau collection of short stories - a concept album for the eyes.  Dandelion Wine is, in fact, a long narrative poem, cleverly disguised as a novel.  Not cleverly enough for my wife, though.  I read her the first paragraph aloud (yes, I'm annoying like that).  "That's beautiful!" she said.  "I didn't know he wrote poetry, too!"  You're found out, Mr. Bradbury.  You can bury the lines and stanzas in paragraphs, but once someone reads you aloud, the jig is up.  Dandelion Wine is every bit as much a poem as John Brown's Body.  The music gives you away.

Again, once we read through the early chapter where you expound your controlling metaphor, we begin to realize that the cover precedes its lie with a great truth.  The making of dandelion wine is the bottling of summer, stashed away to ferment awhile, to be opened in winter, when we need a little of that sun gone by to get us through.  Between these covers, you've bottled the summer of 1928, in Green Town, Illinois - and so much more.

This is where your magic shines, Mr. Bradbury, brighter than in any other work of yours I've read.  As Mark Twain did, you remember what it's like to be a twelve-year old boy, and know exactly how to capture it.  But unlike Twain, you take it one step farther, savoring the experiences and fathoming their inner meaning.  The making of dandelion wine is the distillation of Douglas's experiences that summer; the fermentation is what the experiences teach him about life.  Some of his conclusions are fanciful, to be sure, but there's always a little truth in fancy, if you know where to look.

But it's not just Douglas's summer you've bottled.  It's mine.  I suspect it's lots of people's, generations notwithstanding.  The world changed considerably between 1928 and 1982, but I, too, remember when a new pair of sneakers made even a fat kid like me feel he could outrun the Flash.  I, too, remember hot days, going out for ice cream, or spending the whole day swimming, or running around with the other kids.  Then sitting on the summer porch of evening, taking in the breeze, swapping greetings with the neighbors out for walks.  I remember listening to the old people's stories of a world where cars were a rich man's toy, and the ice wagon clip-clopped down the brick paved streets.  And I remember the friends who moved, the relatives that died, the businesses that closed, the feeling that the world, even in my short time, wasn't what it used to be.

Some of those are memories I didn't know I had.  It's amazing what memories come back with the right reminders.  Marcel Proust had cookies.  You have Dandelion Wine . . . and now so do I.  Thank you, Mr. Bradbury.  God rest you, sir!  This more than compensates for your dying on my birthday.

Hence in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither,
Can in a moment travel thither,
And see the children sport upon the shores . . . -Wordsworth 
Wordsworth defined poetry as "strong emotion recollected in tranquility."  That's what you've bottled in this book.  Amid the colors of my autumn, as the days, though colorful, grow shorter, and the night breeze sometimes brings a chill, it's nice to have a tasty, warm reminder of my summer.


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