Odd notions

It’s been a long time since I read Ray Bradbury’s novel Dandelion Wine, but one short episode sticks in my mind. An old woman, Mrs. Bentley, begins chatting with three children who pause by her yard on a summer afternoon. One is Tom Spaulding, one of the main characters of the novel; the others are two girls, Jane and Alice. Mrs. Bentley mentions having been their age once, and the girls’ reaction is startling.

‘My mother says it isn’t nice to fib,’ said Jane.
‘Of course it isn’t. It’s very bad,’ agreed Mrs. Bentley.
‘And not to listen to fibs.’
‘Who was fibbing to you, Jane?’
Jane looked at her and then glanced nervously away.
‘You were.’

The fib, it turns out, was in claiming that she was once a girl like Jane and Alice. Mrs Bentley then tries to convince the girls by showing them some of the things she’s saved: a hair comb and ring she once wore, a set of jacks, a photo of herself at age seven. They simply don’t believe her. They laugh and run away with her things.

The idea that old people were once young is an odd notion for a child, one that takes an imaginative leap to comprehend. Bradbury’s treatment of the incident makes it quite striking: the children’s sure and stubborn disbelief in the very possibility that old people could have been young, their open mockery of Mrs. Bentley.

The story turns into a sort of fable about the folly of clinging to the past. But it’s also a fine example of an author getting inside a child’s head, bringing into sharp relief the brightness and strangeness of the world as seen through a child’s eyes.

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