Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A man for all age groups


The first time I encountered the writing of Ray Bradbury, I was a young teacher at Santa Monica High School looking for a good story to read to my ninth grade on Friday. I was mildly interested in science fiction but enjoyed stories about the future that also dealt with human concerns, themes and characters that would stay with me whether they lived on Mars or next door. I chose Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" to read to the special class of young people I still often think about today, including the Rosen twins, whose mother was a pediatric nurse, and the Badley boy, whose father was my obstetrician-gynecologist (a bit disconcerting as his son was his spitting image!). Santa Monica seemed a small town then.

The kids loved the story of Margot, a little girl who had just arrived from Earth to join a colony in space; she naively told her class that she had spent lots of time in her former home enjoying the sun. On this planet, the sun shone only for a few minutes every seven years, so the jealous schoolchildren locked her in a closet while they ran out for a blessed few minutes to revel in what most of them had never experienced—sunshine on their faces. When it started thundering again and the rain was coming down in thick sheets and the constant clatter that they lived with, they had to return quickly to the classroom, and only then did they realize what they had done to Margot.

Bradbury's description, typical of all his work, was strong in its appeal to the senses. We can hear the pelting rain, then feel it slow down, sense an odd tingle on the cheeks from the unfamiliar sun and then experience the panic and sadness as the storms return after such a short time of bliss. I probably can find appeals to all of the senses in every piece he wrote; the imagery is poetic language.

A couple of years ago, I included that piece in a unit on the short story and my 21st-century students also loved it, even those who didn't go for science fiction. Probably, that tale retains its fascination because it poses a human predicament that anyone, anytime, can relate to—the bullying of a newcomer.


I have collected Ray Bradbury over the years and still relish reading so many things he wrote, even though they seen less sophisticated than I (or many academics) may aspire to enjoy. "The Veldt," which I taught last year in summer school, fascinated my students with its prescient portrayal of two children in a media-soaked and impersonal house who can actually create reality in the room where they watched wall-sized TV. It doesn't seem as farfetched as it did when I first read it, and the anger and feeling of entitlement felt by those children is not unfamiliar. Again, this generation loved it.

Bradbury appealed to my sense of the grotesque, as I was weaned on Grimm's fairy tales as a young and sickly child. I adored radio shows like "The Shadow" and "Inner Sanctum," though I was later forbidden to listen to them. When I encountered Bradbury's "October Country," part of me as everybody's "nice girl" reveled in the gruesome imagination he illustrated. I wouldn't hurt anyone, ever, but somehow I enjoy good mysteries and true crime stories. Perhaps it is the illicit fantasy that is so attractive!

My favorite Bradbury work, however, is very sweet and nostalgic: "Dandelion Wine" recalls the kind of childhood he must have experienced. I treasure the scene in which Douglas, the young protagonist, convinces the owner of the local shoe store to work off the balance needed to buy a new pair of sneakers for the dandelion-full summer. When he is able to discard his old heavy winter shoes for the light, almost-magical springiness of the sneakers, we imagine, as he does, the speed of an African antelope or gazelle, the delight of the impending summer, the zest for life that is possible for all of us.

Whether I choose to tackle "Madame Bovary" or "Crime and Punishment," books that I acknowledge are superb, I still harbor a special part in my soul for the richness and lushness of Bradbury's world. Thank God we don't have "Fahrenheit 451" in reality! Some book snob might decide to rid the world of good reads like his: enjoyable escapism and a legacy of delight!

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