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Thursday, July 22, 2010

Critical Thinking

The Green Town Trilogy

Before Elizabeth Moon, but after Anne McCaffrey; before J.K. Rowling, but after Tolkien and Lewis; before Kipling, but after the Chuck Jones cartoons; right around the same time as Spider Robinson, there was Ray Bradbury.

Have you ever stuck with an author because you didn’t understand the writing so it made you feel smart to read it? I think that’s one of the reasons I read Bradbury. That and I could never seem to remember the stories when I finished—just the impressions they gave me.

Although my favorites are probably The Martian Chronicles and Fahrenheit 451, summer always makes me think of Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes. I just found out that the sequel to Dandelion Wine came out a couple of years ago—fifty-plus years after the original. So I decided to read the Green Town, Illinois, trilogy to see what I could see.

Dandelion Wine was as sweet and dark and poignant as I remembered. Twelve-year old Douglas Spaulding has just started summer vacation. At an age when a month lasts a year and a season a lifetime, he begins his adventure with a shocking revelation that defines his entire life: he is alive.

Heady stuff for a twelve-year old, especially when the next great revelation is that, someday, he will die. Surrounded by his wise and practical younger brother, Tom, and his wise and philosophical grandfather, Douglas makes his way through new tennis shoes that fit his feet like clouds and the deep, dark ravine where the Lonely One lies in wait for another woman to kill. He and his friends visit the ancient Col Freeleigh, a time-machine of a story teller who spends his last days calling to Mexico City just to hear the bustle. Across town, William Forrester, a young journalist, spends his afternoons with old Miss Helen Loomis and discovers the cruelty of fate in sending him to his soul mate seventy years too late.

All three books are about time and its passage. Dandelion Wine is about seeing death, accepting it when it’s time, and living until then. POVs switch back and forth from Douglas to the adults around him, weaving experiences. The experiences and the truths they reveal weigh heavily on the twelve-year old. Heavy enough to smother. He’s saved by the fact that the same world that tries to crush you also provides life in the form of fresh air and papayas and lakes and sunsets. As John Eldredge says, beauty matters.

One of the problems I have when I get back to a Bradbury book is trying to figure out what’s real, what’s metaphor, and what’s the imagination of the characters. I should know by now that although the themes are metaphor, the scenes are all real. Mrs. Goodwater really did use witchcraft to secure her position in the Honeysuckle Ladies Lodge. Mr. Auffman really did build a Happiness Machine—even if it had the opposite effect of what he intended. And Grandpa really did harvest the summer sun and air and bottle it into elixirs that sit in the cellar in anticipation of future frigid winter days.

More than fifty years later, Dandelion’s sequel, Farewell Summer drops all the fantasy. It’s a hot October, a year later. Douglas is thirteen and wants to remain so forever, but a dream about a lone voyage on a ship reminds him he will die. He sees the grouchy old bachelor men in control of the school board and chafes against their attempts to bottle him up in rules and homework and long hours at his desk. As if they want him dead years before he’ll see the grave.

The old men see Douglas and his friends and seethe. How dare they be so young and free and full of energy? Their job, as they see it, is to wear down their youth with confinement until they can be sent off to a good war.

Douglas, his brother, and their friends try to figure out ways to stop the old men and stop time in the process. Who would ever want to be older than thirteen? They carve the old men’s faces in pumpkins, quit eating so they won’t grow, and sabotage the clock in the town square so it can’t count down the hours. Watching the old men play chess under the trees, Douglas knows exactly what they’re doing. They’re not moving little pieces of ivory around; they’re arranging and controlling and sacrificing the boys’ lives.

As it turns out, Douglas is right. Not in a magical way—there’s very little fantasy in Farewell Summer. But old Col Quartermain has made it his life’s work to control the wild boys. In one last-ditch effort, he throws a birthday party for Douglas’s classmate, a girl named Lisabell. He forces the boys to celebrate aging.

It doesn’t have the effect he intended. Douglas sees past the cake to the girl and gets his first glimpse of an immortality that includes growing up, growing old, and going on. Quartermain sees it, too, for the first time in a great many years. He sees his own foolishness in striving for an old, bitter, crippled immortality. With no heirs to pass on his name or his face, he passes on something else to Douglas, knowing he’ll live through the boy.

Throughout it all, Grandfather remains the voice of reason. Bradbury admits as much in the afterward, where he gives homage to the wise old people he’d grown up with.

Something Wicked This Way Comes was written after Dandelion Wine but long before Farewell Summer. It’s set in the same town with completely different characters. The themes are similar to Farewell Summer, but include much more fantasy than even Dandelion Wine.

Jim Nightshade is as dark in spirit as his name. He lives with his mother and a desperate desire to be older—old enough to not be afraid. Next door, Will Halloway is as bright as the sun and content with his life. His mother is the ultimate mother. His father is an older, greyer man who frequently retreats to the safe stacks of the local library. Trouble comes into town in the form of the Cooger & Dark Pandemonium Shadow Show—a carnival that appears on the outside to be perfectly normal, but actually feeds on the fears and desires of its most desperate attendees.

Jim and Will know there’s something wrong with the carnival. They can sense the evil in the house of mirrors, and they’ve seen Mr. Cooger step onto the carousel a young boy and step off a man grown. But they’re still drawn to it—Jim by the promise of growing older, and Will by a desire to protect the town and his friend.

Will’s father, Charles, old at fifty-four, also sees the evil and endeavors to avoid it. But when it hunts down his son, he finds a strength he thought was long gone. A life in him that has nothing to do with immortality or passing on a legacy; a fierceness he’d only read about in the books of his beloved library.

Although I’ve read this book several times before, I can never seem to remember what it’s about until I read it again. What surprised me about the story this time was how light triumphs over dark. Not just Charles and Mr. Dark, but Jim and Will. We have turned the dark, tortured stranger into a hero and the nice guy into a powerless wreck. But Will does save Jim, time and again. Even as Jim precedes Will in the fascinations they’ll both inevitably grow into, Will does what he can to make sure Jim doesn’t get ahead of himself or drift off into areas best left alone.

I find both Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked difficult to read. The prose is very rich. Not chocolate-torte-rich. More like bleu-cheese-rich. In describing the town at night, Bradbury writes:

It seemed when the first stroke of nine banged from the big courthouse clock all the lights were on and business humming in the shops. But by the time the last stroke of nine shook everyone’s fillings in his teeth, the barbers had yanked off the sheets, powdered the customers, trotted them forth; the druggist’s fount had stopped fizzing like a nest of snakes, the insect neons everywhere had ceased buzzing, and the vast glittering acreage of the dime store with its ten billion metal, glass and paper oddments waiting to be fished over, suddenly blacked out. Shades slithered, doors boomed, keys rattled their bones in locks, people fled with hordes of torn newspaper mice nibbling their heels.

It’s hard to read more than a couple of chapters without taking time to let it digest. It’s cool, and descriptive, but tough to chew.

Farewell Summer is a much easier read. It’s still descriptive—in describing Douglas hitting Quartermain with his bike, he writes, “…his bike hit a nightmare scarecrow that was flung to the ground as he pumped off, wailing, staring back at one more murder strewn on the walk,”—but easier to read. And the POVs are much tighter. I don’t know if that was a conscience choice or just an alteration in writing style over the years.

It’s mid-July; still plenty of time to read. If you’re looking for summer books (even if two are set in October), I recommend the Green Town trilogy. If you find them too rich and philosophical, there’s always Twilight.

And now for something completely different, here's the Toad the Wet Sprocket song that always reminds me of Douglas and Will. Although, I always imagined Doug and Will had much shorter hair.

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