Summer Reading: John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain
Welcome to Summer Reading 2017! This summer we’re taking advantage of the long summer days to read our way through some of our favorite series for children and young people.
If you happen to visit my hometown library this summer, you could go in the front door, pass the desk, take the first right into the children’s section and go all the way down past the right-hand shelves to the back wall. Third shelf up, about halfway in—that’s where you’ll find The Great Brain books. I checked them out so often that I’m fairly sure I could still find them blind-folded. These books, based loosely on Fitzgerald’s own childhood, chronicle life in the Mormon town of Adenville, Utah in the 1890s and—I’m not sure if I should admit this or not—I always loved them much more than those other more famous books involving little houses and prairies.
The books are narrated by J.D., the youngest boy in one of the few non-Mormon families in Adenville. J.D. tells us the adventures of his older brother, Tom (a.k.a. The Great Brain), an entrepreneur extraordinaire. In the opening chapter, we meet Tom charging the other kids in town a penny a head to view his family’s new water closet, the first indoor toilet in Adenville. That’s actually a fairly straight-forward money-making scheme for Tom—he’s always playing the angles and is not terribly concerned about ethics if there’s cash involved. Poor J.D. usually comes out of the deal with the short end of the stick.
In fact, it was an eye-opening experience to revisit these books as an adult when I started passing them along to my own kids. I had collected the first seven books for our home library and I was excited to read them again, but from my new perspective as a mom, I kept getting upset with Tom for swindling his little brother over and over again and with the parents for not handling it better. As an adult reader, though, I could appreciate even more how Fitzgerald draws a picture of his hometown, dealing with difficult issues of loss, prejudice, tragedy, and even suicide via the matter-of-fact narrative voice of young J.D. Despite the occasionally dark themes, the books are incredibly funny (with the added bonus of Mercer Mayer’s illustrations), and Tom’s adventures make for addictive reading.
(Also, I would really really like for someone to write a Ocean’s Eleven-type heist fanfic starring a crew including 20-something versions of Tom and J.D. along with their partners-in-crime Anne Shirley and Encyclopedia Brown. They should probably go up against a rival crew headed by Tom Sawyer. Make it happen, people.)
In which we meet Tom and J.D. and the rest of the family and are introduced to Tom’s materialism and flexible moral compass—balanced (at least at times) with the good things he can accomplish for his friends and his town when he puts his Great Brain to work.
Tom “discovers” a prehistoric cave beast, goes up against the Silverlode ghost, and teaches the new girl in town to read in his second collection of adventures.
With Tom away at school, J.D. tries his hand at wheeling and dealing but nothing seems to work out the way he plans, at least not until the Fitzgeralds take in a little boy traumatized by the loss of his family. J.D. must now look after and protect his new adopted little brother, Frankie, even as the town is menaced by outlaws.
Meanwhile, the students and faculty of the Catholic Academy for Boys in Salt Lake City don’t know what’s hit them when Tom joins his older brother at boarding school.
Tom is back for summer vacation and ready to raid Adenville’s piggy-banks, but when his river raft excursion almost gets J.D.’s best friends killed, J.D. decides it’s time for the kids in town to put Tom on trial as a confidence man, swindler, blackmailer, and all-around crook.
Tom is living at home now that Adenville is building its own nondenominational academy, but after his “trial,” he claims to be a reformed character, only using his Great Brain for the public good (and perhaps some private reward) by solving a train robbery and murder.
Of course, J.D. knows that the Great Brain’s reformation will never stick—“Some day for sure our family will either be visiting Tom in the White House or in prison,” he tells us sagely—and so we get one last collection of Tom’s adventures before he turns 13 and (according to J.D.) is “hypnotized” by Polly Reagan. At least, I thought it was the final collection until...
WHY DID NO ONE TELL ME THAT THERE WAS A NEW GREAT BRAIN BOOK?!? I SHOULD HAVE BEEN INFORMED!!! As I discovered when getting ready to write about the series, an 8th and final book was published in 1995 from notes left by the author (who died in 1988). It’s true that books published posthumously from “loose notes” often have little resemblance to the previous works that were finished and polished by the author, but it’s also true that I can’t possibly turn down the opportunity to read more about the Great Brain. Fortunately, my local library has a copy, so look for a mention in an upcoming Library Chicken!