Dandelion Wine is the story of the summer of Douglas Spaulding recounted in a series of vignettes that form a loose mosaic story. The titular drink, brewed by Spaulding's grandfather, comes to serve as a representation of packing all of summer's memories, sorrows, and joys into a single bottle. Each story focuses on a different facet of Douglas's summer experience, with themes ranging from young love to the power of imagination.
Chapter 1 — Spending the night in the cupola of his grandfather's house that gives him a panoramic view of the town, Douglas wakes up early on the first day of summer and performs an elaborate series of actions that coincide with the lightening of the sky and awakening of the townspeople. He does this in such a way that implies magic, thus setting the basis of the novel as collections of life events tinged with a degree of fantasy.
Chapter 2 (Illumination) —Douglas goes with his ten-year-old brother Tom and his father to pick fox grapes. While Tom and his father act like today is just an ordinary day, Douglas senses an inexplicable presence around them. When Tom initiates a friendly rough-and-tumble fight between the two of them, Douglas suddenly realizes what it is: the revelation that he's alive. He finds it to be a glorious and liberating feeling.
Chapter 3 (Dandelion Wine) — Dandelion wine is presented as a metaphor of summer here, bottled for the winter season of illnesses and wheezing. In Douglas' words: "Dandelion wine. The words were summer on the tongue. The wine was summer caught and stoppered."
Chapters 4–5 (Summer in the Air) — Douglas discovers that his feet won't move as fast as that of the other boys because his sneakers are worn out. He becomes entranced by a pair of brand-new Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot Shoes in a shop window, and thinks on how the need for a "magic" pair of sneakers to run in the green grass is something only boys can understand when his father argues against buying another. The local shoe seller, Mr. Sanderson, is initially resistant to selling the sneakers to Douglas, especially since he doesn't even have enough money to pay for them upfront. Douglas, however, convinces him to try on a pair of his own sneakers, which triggers memories in Mr. Sanderson of when he was a kid and ran like the antelopes and gazelles. He agrees to let Douglas have the sneakers in return for work done by him in the shop to pay off the bill. The story ends with Douglas speeding away in the distance and Mr. Sanderson picking up his discarded old sneakers.
Chapter 6 — Douglas shows to Tom a tablet that he is using to record his summer in, under two sections labeled "Rites and Ceremonies" and "Discoveries and Revelations." The contents are what would be expected for a kid, including a "revelation" that kids and grown-ups don't get along with each other becausethey're "separate races and 'never the twain shall meet.'" Tom suggests a revelation of his own; that night is created from "shadows crawling out from under five billion trees."
Chapter 7 (Season of Sitting) — Another ritual of summer is accomplished with the setting up of the porch swing as a place for night-long conversation. Douglas comments on how sitting in the porch swing feels somehow "right" because one would always be comforted by the droning, ceaseless voices of the adults. In keeping up with the fantasy-tinged atmosphere of the novel, the chapter gradually shifts from a realistic beginning, in which the family is setting up the swing, to an almost dreamlike conclusion, in which the grown-ups' voices are personified as drifting on into the future.
Chapters 8–9 (The Happiness Machine–beginning) — Leo Auffmann, listening to elderly people's gloomy and fatalistic conversations, insists that they should not dwell on such miserable topics. Douglas and his grandfather, passing by, suggest to Leo that he should make a Happiness Machine. After the conversing people laugh at this apparently absurd idea, Leo becomes determined to do just that. A brief scene of him returning to his family of six children indicates his happiness at home, exemplified when his wife Lena asks, "Something's wrong?" after Leo expresses his desire to build a Happiness Machine.
Chapter 10 (The Night) — Interposed between Leo's story is another tale referring to Douglas' family. It starts out relatively uneventfully, with Tom running to Mrs. Singer's store to get ice cream at nine o'clock on the same night for him and Douglas. However, by nine-thirty, Douglas has not returned, which causes hisworried mother to venture to the ravine with Tom. Tom, despite the darkness of the night, feels safe because he is holding his mother's hand and also because he has little understanding of Death. His sense of security, however, vanishes when he feels his mother's hand tremble and realizes that she is afraid, like him. The ensuing revelation that apparently unfazed grown-ups feel loneliness and pain too unnerves him and makes him aware of the darkness surrounding them. Just before he feels overwhelmed, Douglas and his friends return, breaking the spell of aloneness. Tom later tells Douglas thatthe ravine would not belong in Leo's Happiness Machine, thus contrasting the pleasures humans wish for with the realities they receive instead.
Chapter 11 (The Happiness Machine–continued) — In a relatively short chapter, Leo sits with his wife Lena on the porch swing in the night. Lena tells him that they don't need a Happiness Machine, but Leo says that he's going to build the Machine for others that would cure all melancholy. He is greeted with only silence, but is too preoccupied with noting the sounds of nature that would belong in the Machine to notice this foreshadowing.
Chapter 12 (The Lawns of Summer) — Another interception of Leo's story which re-focuses on the Spaulding family; Douglas' grandfather begins the day, happily reveling in the sound of the lawn mower running on their lawn, an indicator to him that summer has truly begun. Grandma, however, tells him that Bill Forrester, the man cutting their grass, is planning to plant new grass on their lawn that will only grow to a certain height, thus eliminating the need for lawn mowers. (Note: no such grass actually exists yet in the real world) Horrified at this, Grandpa gives Bill a firm lecture on how little things can matter more thanthe big ones, especially to experienced people like him. Bill attempts to change his mind, but only convinces Grandpa further of his position when he learns that the new grass will kill off the dandelions.
Grandpa finally pays Bill the cost of the grass flats in return for him not installing the flats in his lawn. He takes a nap and wakes up in the afternoon to find Bill cutting the lawn again, having learned to appreciate the "little things," thanks to Grandpa.
Chapter 13 (The Happiness Machine—concluded) — Leo, still obsessed with creating the Happiness Machine, asks Lena if she is "pleased, contented, joyful, [or] delighted." Lena gives a sarcastic reply which offends Leo who is taking his goal seriously, and they get into an argument. The squabble ends only when Lena realizes that she's burned their dinner for the first time in twenty years.
Leo then spends several weeks toiling in his garage to build his Happiness Machine. During this time, the state of his family disintegrates, but Leo is too busy with his invention to pay attention to his wife's warnings.
At last, Leo completes his Happiness Machine. Ironically, the Machine turns out to cause misery instead of the expected bliss, causing both Saul, his son, and Lena to weep after sitting in it. Lena explains to him that a Happiness Machine cannot be built for humans because it would only give them everything they wanted all the time, and produce no fulfillment. Furthermore, it makes them pine for things they shouldn't even be thinking about, such as when a dancing simulation in the Machine caused her to miss the times when Leo would take her out for dances when they have not done so for 20 years. Leo offers to take Lena dancing tomorrow night, but Lena says that was not the point; rather looking at other people doing happy activities can make one miserable. Leo, still disbelieving, decides to take a test run in the Machine himself, but just as he is about to do so, the Machine catches fire, and burns down to the ground.
After the incident, Leo comments to Douglas and his father that he's been a fool because the real Happiness Machine has been right in front of him all along. He shows them his newfound Happiness Machine running in perfect order— his family.
Chapter 14 — As the Spaulding family prepares to shake out the rugs, Douglas and Tom's imaginations turn this chore into a magical discovery, fancying that they see the happenings and neighbors in their town in the stains of one rug. A lavish metaphor at the end of the chapter describes Tom beating the rug so hard that the dust rises up to meet him, another surrealistic chapter ending possibly a reference to the Judeo-Christian belief that man was created from dust.
Chapters 15–16 (Season of Disbelief) — Mrs. Bentley, a 72-year-old woman who saves all memorabilia from her past, finds her beliefs challenged by two girls named Alice and Jane, who meet her along with Tom and don't believe her when she says that she was young like them once. Claiming that she's lying, they run away laughing, leavingMrs. Bentley infuriated.
The next time they meet, Mrs. Bentley shows them some of her relics, including a photograph of her as a child. Alice and Jane say that the objects don't prove anything, since she could have got them from another girl, and Mrs. Bentley's insistence that they will one day be old like her fails to unnerve them. They run away with some of her "stolen" possessions, further shaking Mrs. Bentley's confidence in the authenticity of her childhood. As she sifts through her memorabilia, she hears the voice of her husband speaking to her, explaining that the items don't really belong to her because they came from the past, not from the present she is living in now. Even affidavits wouldn't change the fact that she's no longer the self that the saved clothes and pictures were meant for.
Mrs. Bentley finally understands, and discards the tokens of her past the next day with the help of the girls and Tom through allowing the girls to take what they wish, then help her make a bonfire for the rest. From then on, she lives in the present only, confirming the girls' belief that she was never young "in a million trillion years."
In a following chapter, Tom later tells Douglas of his revelation that old people never truly were young, which Douglas writes down in his tablet.
Chapters 17–18 (The Last, the Very Last) — Douglas and Tom are introduced to a living "Time Machine" in the form of Colonel Freeleigh who narrates incredibly vivid descriptions of his personal experiences, including a fatal bullet trick performed by Ching Ling Soo, being on the prairie with Pawnee Bill, and witnessing the Battle of FortSumter. His anecdotes draw the boys themselves into the detailed events, and all agree that the colonel is a true Time Machine.
Similar to the previous story in Chapter 14, there is an expository chapter in which Douglas and Tom record the story in Douglas' tablet and provide both casual and profound commentary on its implications.
Chapter 19 (The Green Machine) — Two elderly women, Miss Fern and Miss Roberta, take refuge in their attic after they accidentally run over Mister Quartermain while riding the Green Machine, believing him to be dead. Huddling together, they recall the time when they bought the Green Machine from a salesman as a noiseless, smooth form of transportation. The first week on the Green Machine went by like a dream, until the accident with Mister Quartermain. Fern and Roberta lament on how they did not stop or at least get help for him, and then resolve to not drive the Green Machine ever again. Later on, they learn that MisterQuartermain did not die after all.
Chapter 20 (The Trolley) — Douglas is horrified to find out that yet another form of transportation for the summer is about to be gone; the trolley run by Mr. Tridden, which will have its tracks replaced with new ones for a bus. On the last day of operation Mr. Tridden offers the children a free ride, and Douglas, Tom, and a group of children from the neighbourhood climb aboard. During the ride, they comment on how a bus cannot emulate the feel and smell of a trolley, further emphasized by use of gorgeous imagery to describe the sights the boys see while in the trolley. At the end of the line, Mr. Tridden uses an emergency generator to take the streetcar on a track line abandoned for eighteen years that leads to a lake where once the trolley took people to summer festivities. Mr Tridden relates the events of a summer night in 1910 before taking the children home. When the trip concludes, Douglas reflects on how he will always remember the trolley tracks, even after they have been buried in reality. In a humorous reversal, the somber meditation on the vanishing of the trolley is punctuated by a brief snippet of Douglas agreeing to a game of kick the can, abruptly ending the chapter on a lighthearted note.
Chapters 21–22 (Statues—created for novel) — Douglas' best friend John Huff is introduced and described in this chapter as the ideal boy to be friends with. John, however, tells Douglas that his family will be moving tomorrow. In response to Douglas' protests, John comments on how he has suddenly realized that he's taken so many things forgranted in his neighborhood that he can't remember most of them, including his parents' faces, and on how he's afraid that Douglas will similarly forget him. Douglas assures him that he has a perfect memory of his face, but ruins his claim when he can't remember that John's eyes are green.
Douglas attempts to enjoy his last day with John, but keeps on being reminded of the diminishing amount of time before John's departure. He tries a last-ditch effort to keep John from leaving by "freezing" him for three hours when the children play statues. John refuses to play along and instead begins another round of Statues, in which he "freezes" Douglas instead just before he leaves for good. After he realizes that John is gone for good, Douglas, thinking of how statues stay still compared to humans who can't be controlled, yells out into the distance that he hates John.
Another expository chapter, this one the shortest yet at only one page, has Douglas asking Tom to promise that he will stay with him. He also says that he's concerned about how God runs the world, to which Tom replies simply, "He tries, " most likely an accepting remark that life isn't perfect.
Chapters 23–24 — Elmira Brown, a high-strung woman, believes that Clara Goodwater, her rival for the position of president for the Honeysuckle Ladies Lodge, is a witch who is causing her numerous small accidents, including tripping over objects in front of her. Elmira accuses Clara of performing dark magic on her to sabotage her chances in the election, using information from her mailman husband about a stack of books for magic spells that was sent to her house. Clara, in response, says that the books are for her younger cousin, and claims that Elmira's accidents are caused by her own clumsiness. Unconvinced, Elmira brews a potion for herself to counter Clara's "dark magic," and brings Tom with her to the ladies' meeting as her "charm."
The potion, however, does not stop her from continuing to knock things over, and she in fact begins to feel strangely disoriented as she talks on the platform. Elmira loses the election yet again to Clara, who then draws from her purse a voodoo doll with several tacks embedded in it. A dazed Elmira asks Tom to show her the way to the restroom, but she makes a wrong turn and tumbles down a flight of stairs. Miraculously, she has no broken bones despite heavy bruises, and Clara apologizes to her and even offers a second vote to elect her as president. The story ends with all the women running up the stairs, laughing and crying at the same time. It is left unclear on whether Elmira's fall was caused by mental disorder, nausea after drinking her "potion," or real witchcraft by Clara.
Another one-page chapter shows Tom telling Douglas about his weird encounter with the ladies at the lodge, and they comment on how the town has much magic, illustrating how kids view events differently than grown-ups.
Chapters 25–26 (The Window) — Colonel Freeleigh, the same "Time Machine" the boys listened to in Chapter 17, has been confined to a hospital for his weakening health. His sole comfort is a phone in his room that he can use to dial the number of Jorge, an old friend in Mexico City who lays his phone on an open window to allowhim to hear the bustling noises outside. When the nurse learns of his phone calls, she tells him that she will give orders to take the phone away to prevent him from overworking his heart further. A desperate Freeleigh, feeling his chest pains worsen, dials Jorge's number once more. Although Jorgewas already called by the nurse asking him to hang up, he agrees to honor Colonel Freeleigh begging for one last listening to the sounds of the city people. As his friend does so, Freeleigh immerses himself in the activity of Mexico City, thinking of how grateful he is for this reminder that the world is still alive and moving. When Douglas and the other children stop by for a visit, they find Freeleigh dead, still holding the phone. Douglas listens to the phone in time to hear "two thousand miles away, the closing of a window," a metaphor for Freeleigh's death.
In the following chapter, Douglas sits silently as Tom pretends to be a Civil War soldier, pondering on how with Colonel Freeleigh's death, all of his memories of the historical figures died too. Tom, however, fails to share in his brooding, only suggesting that he write his thoughts down in his tablet before resuming his play.
Chapter 27 — July has ended, and thirty-one bottles of dandelion wine have been made. Douglas, remembering his recent string of losses of friends and machines, wonders why each bottle looks identical and not representative of the day it was made on. He says out loud that August will be tedious and uneventful, to which his grandfather attempts to remedy his melancholy with a swig of dandelion wine and some ordered exercises.
Chapters 28–29 (The Swan) — Bill Forrester, with Douglas at his side, orders lime-vanilla ice at the soda fountain. His unusual request catches the attention of ninety-five-year-old Helen Loomis who invites him to visit her house tomorrow. Bill complies, and he and Helen start a friendly conversation about the appearancespeople keep up for each other, that soon diverges into Loomis acting as a "Time Machine" similar to Colonel Freeleigh to transport Bill into the pyramids of Egypt. Bill comments on how comfortable he feels talking to her, and Helen replies by reminding him that she's only an old woman. While lounging in his chair, Bill attempts to envision her as being young again; he succeeds for a moment in seeing "the swan," which he unintentionally says out loud, strangely disquieting Helen.
Bill continues to visit Helen every day for two and a half weeks, but only on the last day does he tell her what motivated him to visit her in the first place: a photograph taken of her when she was twenty. He had seen the picture in the newspaper for the town ball and intended to go to the ball to seek the beautiful girl it showed, until someone told him that the picture had been taken a long time ago and had been used by the newspaper every year since then to advertise the ball. Helen replies with an overview of a young man she once knew in her youth who was handsome but wild and reckless; he left her, but when she saw Bill at the fountain that day, she was strongly reminded of him— almost as if he were a reincarnation of her former companion.
Some time later, Bill finds Helen writing a letter addressed to him. Helen explains to him that she will be dead in a few days, and that the letter she is writing will come to him then. When Bill attempts to protest about the lack of time they have had together, Helen says that she believes that they will meet again sometime later— possibly in reincarnated forms. She tells him to marry and live happily, but says that he has to die before the age of fifty in order to ensure that when they are reincarnated, they will be of the correct ages and be able to meet and fall in love with each other.
Two days later, Bill receives the letter. Inside it is a note reading, "A dish of lime-vanilla ice."
The next chapter shifts back to the viewpoint of Douglas, who asks Tom on how come Mr. Forrester and Mrs. Loomis did not get a happy ending, as in the movies. However, the boys' attentions are quickly distracted from the subject when they arrive at Summer's Ice House, and turn to the legend of the Lonely One in the town, acting as an introduction to the next story.
Chapters 30–31 (The Whole Town's Sleeping) —Lavinia Nebb goes to the movies with some of her friends, however the town is in an uproar over the appearance of a serial killer known as the Lonely One.
In the expository chapter, it is revealed in the conversation between Doug, Tom, and Charlie that Lavinia killed the Lonely One by stabbing him with a pair of sewing scissors. Charlie berates Lavinia for killing off their main source of thrills, but Tom convinces him that the actual Lonely One is still alive because the man they took in looked like "a plain, everyday man who wouldn't pull the wings off even so much as a fly," instead of the tall, bulgy-eyed monster they think he should look like. Neither of them listen to Douglas who says that he was at the ravine at that time and witnessed Lavinia discovering Elizabeth's body, and thus can no longer treat the Lonely One as just an amusingly scary figure.
Chapter 32 (Good-by, Grandma) — Douglas' great-grandma, after countless years of assisting her family, feels that her time is expiring with a growing tiredness. She lies down in her bed amidst the protests of her relatives, waiting for her death. When Douglas asks her who's going to do all the chores she did around the house,she says that they belong to anyone who wants them, and reminds him that she will not truly be dead in his mind. As her family leaves her to rest alone, she returns to the dream she was in before she was born, dying happily and peacefully.
Chapter 33 — Disillusioned by the recent deaths and losses, Douglas, by the light of a multitude of fireflies, writes for a long time on the shortcomings of things and people, associating them mainly with breaking down (machines) or death (people). He seems to be on the verge of a great revelation as he quickly scribbles at the end a summary of the dark side of his summer experience:
"SO IF TROLLEYS AND RUNABOUTS AND FRIENDS AND NEAR FRIENDS CAN GO AWAY FOR A WHILE OR GO AWAY FOREVER, OR RUST, OR FALL APART OR DIE, AND IF PEOPLE CAN BE MURDERED, AND IF SOMEONE LIKE GREAT-GRANDMA, WHO WAS GOING TO LIVE FOREVER, CAN DIE...IF ALL OF THIS IS TRUE...THEN...I, DOUGLAS SPAULDING, SOME DAY, MUST..."
However, the fireflies' light has gone out, so Douglas stops writing and releases the fireflies into the night. He then tries to fall asleep.
Chapter 34 (The Tarot Witch–created for novel) — Douglas takes Tom to a Penny Arcade to show him the mechanical Tarot Witch there. When Tom asks him why he wanted him to see her, Douglas says that he asks too many questions. He then thinks to himself that it's because he was initially elated when he realized that he was alive, before he realized that being alive meant that he must die someday too, no matter how much he wants to prevent it. No longer certain about his life, he wants to take comfort in something that he knows never will go away, i.e. the permanent amusements at the carnival. Douglas gets a typical fortune from the Tarot Witch, but the card she gives Tom is blank. Tom suggests that the Witch might have run out of ink, but Douglas insists that the blank card must have some special meaning. Thinking that she might have written a message in invisible ink on the back of the card, Douglas runs a match over it. He accidentally burns up the card in the process, but says that he read a French message from the Witch, calling for help. He comes to the conclusion that the Witch is really a princess trapped in hot wax that someone poured over her.
Douglas plots to "rescue" the Tarot Witch by doing heavy business at the arcade, filling up another arcade game with coins so that Mr. Black, the owner, will use them to get drunk. Mr. Black, however, goes crazy and smashes the Witch's glass case, enraged at how the machine has cost him more in repairs than it made in profits. Douglas jumps in to stop him; just as Mr. Black is about to attack him with a knife, he passes out from his drinking. Douglas and Tom confiscate the Witch, planning to free her, but just as they reach the ravine, Mr. Black reappears and flings the Witch into the ravine, to Douglas' horror.
Later on in the day, Douglas and Tom return to where the Tarot Witch is lying, and retrieve her. They tell their father, who is surprisingly supportive, perhaps sensing the same sense of adventure from his own years, and offers to smooth things over with Mr. Black by buying the Tarot Witch machine from him. Douglas says to Tom that the Witch is really alive, and that someday he will be able to free her from the wax with magic spells so that the Witch will become just another figurine. As he mentions their fortunes, another blank card falls from her sleeve. Douglas exclaims that it must be written with her thanks and a prediction that they will "live forever." Tom says to Douglas that "when a beautiful Italian girl appears in town and buys a train ticket out East", then he could cut open the Tarot Witch to see if his story was indeed true.
Chapter 35 (Hotter than Summer) — Douglas comes upon Tom who is counting the times cicadas buzz every fifteen seconds to measure the temperature. Douglas reads the home thermometer as reading 87 °F (31 °C), but Tom, after finishing his count, says that it is actually 92° (33 °C) Spaulding. Feeling woozy, Douglas begins subconsciously counting to the cicadas' buzzes too.
Chapters 36–38 (Dinner at Dawn) — This story focuses upon Mr. Jonas and his wagon full of discarded objects that he totes around town in the very early morning, allowing people to take what they need from it at no cost; many of them donating some of their old items to the wagon before it moves on forward again.
On a scorchingly hot morning, with the cicadas buzzing louder than normal with the rising temperature, Douglas lies in his bed, burning up with a fever. Tom and his mother attempt to cool him down, to no avail. In his fever, Douglas has hallucinations of long-lost people and machines walking past, including Mr. Tridden and his trolley, Miss Fern and Roberts riding by on their Green Machine, and Colonel Freeleigh popping up like a clock, all waving good-bye to him, which makes him cry out loud.
At four o'clock in the afternoon, Tom tells Mr. Jonas about Douglas' condition and says that he's afraid that he might die. Mr. Jonas gives him a set of wind-chimes to hang by Douglas' window, but they do not make a sound because there is no wind. Mr. Jonas visits the Spaulding residence to see Douglas at seven-thirty, but Douglas' mother says that he is not to be disturbed. By nightfall, Douglas is no better, and his family takes him outside in a cot, in the hope that he will be cooled by a wind.
Finally, at twelve-thirty, Mr. Jonas makes a stop with his wagon where Douglas is sleeping and leaves him two bottles filled with air containing soothing vapor and smells from the tropics and moisture-filled areas, on the condition that he pass this favor on to someone else. The bottles of air appear to work, as Tom finds Douglas breathing the same refreshing air in and out of his nose.
The next morning, the heat and the cicadas finally fade down with the coming of rain, and Douglas is well enough to write in his tablet again of his experience.
Chapter 39 (The Magical Kitchen) — Douglas' grandma is renowned in the household for her divine cooking for the entire family. Aunt Rose, however, threatens this magic when she questions Grandma's methods of cooking, and later persuades Grandma to organize her kitchen, wear glasses, and read from a cookbook while cooking. This systematic cooking that results, however, destroys the uniqueness and magicalness of Grandma's dinners for the rest of the family. In response to this, Grandpa bids Aunt Rose good-bye, but Grandma appears to have lost her touch for cooking.
While the rest of the members are awake in their beds, Douglas sneaks down to the kitchen and restores it back to its original chaos, getting rid of the glasses and the cookbook. The family heads downstairs to find that Grandma has reconnected with her cooking again as it was meant to be, and everyone enjoys a magnificent late dinner. The chapter closes with Douglas thinking on how he repaid Mr. Jonas by passing on his favor.
Chapter 40 (Green Wine for Dreaming–created for novel) — The final chapter of the novel concludes Douglas' summer, as he and Tom spot school supplies advertised for sale in a shop window. The boys reminisce about the events of summer with the aid of the labeled dandelion wine bottles, guaranteeing that they will remember this summer in their hearts. The Spaulding family stores away their porch swing for autumn, as others reverse their summer preparations as the season draws to an end.
The end of the novel echoes the beginning, with Douglas performing his waking-up act in reverse, pretending to switch the lights off and put everyone else to sleep before finally going to sleep himself, ending a very eventful and memorable summer.