Doug's Reviews > The Great Brain

The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald
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's review
Feb 29, 2012

it was amazing
Read in January, 1987

** spoiler alert ** Note: The following is a review of the entire Great Brain series

The Great Brain is perhaps one of the finest American children's books ever written—as are its companions in the Great Brain series. Reading this series in recent years has in some ways been akin to rereading Tom Sawyer as an adult, since what appeared as high-adventure to me as a fifth grader I now read through a Twainian lens of chuckles and nostalgia.

John D. Fitzgerald was raised in Price, Utah, and based the Great Brain series on the childhood antics of his super-smart, flimflamming older brother, Tom. The books are written in the first-person voice of “J.D.” (based on the young John D. Fitzgerald). The stories take place in the fictional town of Adenville which I surmise is actually somewhere in southwestern Utah, roughly in the vicinity of Iron or Washington Counties (there are references to Cedar City and Shivwits Indians). However, the imprint of Price and eastern Utah is found often in this book, as the town is fairly divided between Mormons and people of other faiths, sports characters such as Basil Kokovinis, the son of Greek hotel operators as well as a run of Scandinavian Mormon kids such as Parley Jensen who wears a coon-skin cap. Adenville is a safe, tight-knit small town as well as a crossroads of rural industry leaving the reader with a sense that cattlemen, hustlers and wild-west entrepreneurs are often staying in town but are usually out of the sight of the youngsters. The central theme of the Great Brain series is the insecurities of childhood and the occasional blurring of the boundary between a warm and safe domestic world and the dangers of a mysterious adult world.

As a kid, I read these books perceiving Tom as the protagonist and hero. As an adult, one realizes that while Tom is indeed J.D.'s begrudged hero, J.D. is the true protagonist and it is through his eyes that the stories are told. Like Twain, Fitzgerald’s greatest talent is bringing to life the fears and joys of childhood and reminding adults of what it was like to be a young. Unlike Tom Sawyer, these books are written on a fourth or fifth grade reading level and the characters harbor childlike feelings of warmth and trust toward parents and adult figures that are not as prevalent in characters like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.

J.D.'s love for his parents is felt throughout the books and is not diminished by youthful, matter-of fact assessments of them. J.D.’s father can be clueless at times (when juxtaposed against his practical wife who often shows more common sense) and frequently purchases quack mail-order contraptions. But J.D.'s father is also presented as a paradigm of the responsible neighbor and townsman who avoids misjudging others.

J.D.’s mother is a firm, loving woman who spends her time laboring in the kitchen alongside an aunt whose hands are “as big as a man’s”. Whenever a trip is taken, the father and boys invariably pull out lunches fixed by the mother, including chocolate cake, home-fried chicken, boiled eggs, sandwiches, pie…and the list goes on. If reading such passages does not make readers hungry, it may remind them of their own mothers as Fitzgerald shows us that cooking was one way his mother conveyed her love to her children.

Adenville is an idyllic world of rural chores, hanging out at “Smith’s vacant lot” and playing checkers by the fireside. And yet there is also tragedy, like the rockslide death that orphans little “Frankie”, a boy later adopted by the Fitzgeralds. Other glimpses of pathos can be found in the books' various descriptions of a frontier pride that avoids asking for desperately needed help or the child whose best efforts are frequently misunderstood by adults.

Like many children’s books and movies, a running theme is that of Tom’s outwitting adults and making them look like fools. And yet, Tom often ends up as the one in trouble and the town’s kids usually end up paying a price as well. Throughout the books, J.D. constantly berates himself for being a fool who falls for Tom’s schemes and seems to have an “I should have known” inferiority complex.

Religion is also a theme in these books—though I was surprised at how much I missed it when I was younger. Perhaps that says something about a young reader and how he or she might interact with the young characters in the book. Even now when I read these books, it is apparent that the undercurrent of religious differences in Adenville is muted in the eyes of the youthful characters. The Fitzgeralds are a Catholic family (although the mother was raised as a Mormon) and worship at a community church except during infrequent visits from a priest. J.D. often speaks of Mormon honesty and tee totaling as givens in a town where Bishop Aden (after whom the town was named) is still a highly revered, living figure. Nonetheless, tug-a-rope teams at civic celebrations are divided between Mormon and Gentile kids and the two groups have occasional dust-ups.

These books capture an age caught between the frontier and modernity, where the Mormon settlement has emerged as a functioning civic unit (although one still senses the watchful paternalism of Bishop Aden) and where budding technology and economic differentiation mix with chores such as watering the chickens. J.D.s father, one of the few educated men in town, is the local newspaper editor, and yet, like all of the other families, they have a small farm, including cows, chickens and a few horses.

There are many striking scenes in this series, including the portrayal of "Abie Glassman", an itinerant Jewish merchant who is getting old and decides to settle in Adenville and open a store. Rumors circulate that Glassman is wealthy and has a chest full of gold. While J.D.'s mom occasionally sends him out to shop with Glassman, J.D. usually heads to the local Mormon co-op instead where he will get candy from the manager. Due to the town's prejudicial assumption that Glassman is a wealthy hoarder and Glassman's proud refusal to seek help, he literally starves to death.

Though at times these stories encounter serious themes and real-life fears, the books' enduring themes are warmth, safety, and humor. Fitzgerald, who died in 1988, is the type of author I would have loved to have met in person, or to have heard him speak about his life and literary experiences. As a young person, I read his novel Papa Married a Mormon, but it did not enchant me as did the Great Brain series. Admittedly, that was probably because it was written for an adult audience and I was likely too young to properly appreciate it. (Perhaps sometime I ought to reread it.) Ultimately, I am grateful to Fitzgerald, who brought to life a small, turn of the century Mormon town and made its otherwise anonymous, youngest citizens larger than life. When it comes to children’s literature, subgenres will come and go. But I believe that as long as kids can find these books, they will be read and loved.

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