In the fictional town of Green Town, Illinois, 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding lives in a large three-story house with his 10-year-old brother Tom, their parents, and a few relatives. Rather than having a straightforward plot, Dandelion Wine is a loosely-connected series of vignettes revolving around the Spaulding boys, their friends, and other residents of the town.
The story begins one early morning in late June. Doug Spaulding wakes up before sunrise while the rest of the town is still asleep. As he peers out of the cupola window, he surveys the whole town and begins telling everyone to wake up. As if obeying Dougs commands, lights go on, people wake up, and slowly the whole town begins coming to life. Doug finally finishes his morning ritual, content that he has ushered in the summer of 1928.
A departure from Ray Bradburys typical science fiction work, Dandelion Wine is a nostalgic and semi-autobiographical novel based on the authors boyhood in Waukegan, Illinois. It offers vivid details of small town life in 1920s America in what can be described as a Norman Rockwell painting in book form.
This book provides examples of the following:
- The All-American Boy: The main character Doug Spaulding, his brother Tom, and most of the other boys in their town are perfect examples of this.
- Anger Born of Worry: Mrs. Spaulding is worried when Doug goes off with some boys from the neighborhood and still hasn't returned by nightfall. She goes out to the ravine and calls out to him. When he answers back, she is furious with him for staying out so long and making her and Tom so worried.
- Annoying Younger Sibling: Tom Spaulding can occasionally be this to his older brother Doug.
- Bookends: The novel opens with Doug waking up and ushering in the first day of summer vacation with a sunrise ritual, and ends with Doug performing the same ritual in reverse as the sun sets to cap off the last day of summer vacation, before going to bed.
- Brain Fever: One morning Doug wakes up with a fever and feels too sick to get out of bed. The doctor examines him, but has no idea what could be causing his sudden illness. Tom thinks this malaise may be caused by all the disappointing things that happened to Doug over the summer.
- Cicadian Rhythm: In one of the later chapters Tom Spaulding is listening to the cicadas outside. He believes that the number of times a cicada buzzes in fifteen seconds plus thirty-nine equals the temperature in degrees Fahrenheit. Doug thinks this is a waste of time and tells him that he could just look at a thermometer. This annoys Tom and causes him to argue with his brother.
- The Clan: The Spauldings are a close-knit extended family that all live together under one roof.
- Close-Knit Community: The town where the Spauldings live is the embodiment of this trope. It is obvious to the reader that the residents of the town are all somehow connected to each other.
- Everytown, America: The whole book takes place in a small mid-Western town called Green Town.
- Free-Range Children: The children of Green Town are a good example of this trope. Many of the vignettes in this book involve children going off and playing on their own without parental supervision.
- Granny Classic: Grandma and Great-Grandma embody this trope to a T. See also Apron Matron.
- Heat Wave: The opening paragraphs of one chapter describe a heat wave descending on Green Town in the middle of the night.
- I Was Quite a Looker: One chapter has a man fall in love with a beautiful girl by her photo alone, only to find out that the photo was taken a long time ago and that the girl is now an old woman. When the old woman learns of this after the two of them strike up quite a rapport, she tells him that they could probably have started a romantic relationship if not for their vastly disparate ages.
- Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: At the beginning of the book, Doug wakes up before everyone else and silently commands his family to wake up, brush their teeth, start making breakfast etc. Lights go on and the townspeople begin their day immediately after Doug tells them to. To the reader it almost seems as if Doug has the supernatural ability to control the actions of the townspeople. Or it could be that he has memorized the daily rhythm of his community and tells people to do things right before they would usually do them. See also Magic Realism.
- Midnight Snack: After a disastrous dinner, the family goes to bed disappointed that Grandma has seemingly "lost her touch". Doug sneaks down to the kitchen in the middle of the night and returns the kitchen to the way it was before Aunt Rose told grandma to clean it up. He gets a cooking fire going and grandma comes downstairs. Soon the whole family is enjoying a delicious meal at 2 o'clock in the morning, overjoyed that grandma has regained her ability to make the scrumptious meals she is famous for.
- Missing Child: While walking with his brother and grandfather, Doug ends up going off with a group of neighborhood kids. A few hours later, his mom becomes worried when he still hasn't come home. She and Tom go out to the ravine to look for him.
- Mortality Phobia: Doug has to deal with this after a few Green Town residents die over the summer, and he comes to the realization that he will eventually have to die too.
- Multi Generational Household: The Spaulding boys live in a big house with their parents, grandparents, and a few aunts and uncles.
- Mystery Meat: Doug's grandma has a disorganized kitchen and pantry full of unlabeled ingredients scattered everywhere. She just grabs stuff at random and throws it all together. Because of this nobody knows exactly what each dish contains, but that doesn't matter because she makes the most legendary, mouth-watering meals anyone has ever tasted.
- No Communities Were Harmed: The fictional town of Green Town was based on Waukegan, Illinois where author Ray Bradbury grew up.
- Random Events Plot: The book lacks a conventional narrative, shifting to various idiosyncratic events surrounding the residents of Green Town over the course of the summer.
- Retired Badass: Colonel Freeleigh. The boys in Green Town enjoy visiting him and hearing his stories about fighting in the Civil War.
- Seasonal Baggage: Being a book about summer, Dandelion Wine is loaded with references to picking berries, porch swings, freshly mowed lawns, 4th of July firecrackers, and other things traditionally associated with summer.
- Serial Killer: The enigmatic Lonely One, who's preyed upon random victims for a few years. Possibly killed after finally choosing the wrong woman's home to invade, though the boys of the town speculate that since the perpetrator didn't look like how they imagined the Lonely One to be, that it probably wasn't him. Tom, uneasy, worries that their imaginings just might have ensured the Lonely One is still out there...
- Team Chef: Doug's Grandma cooks enormous dinners for the whole extended family.