The Great Brain, by John D Fitzgerald, illustrations by Mercer Mayer, 175 pp, RL 4
First reviewed on 8/26/11, this series of books left a huge impression on me as a child. Especially since, for some odd reason, I didn't read the Little House on the Prairie books until I had a child of my own. I'm sure I was drawn to this series since I was raised on Mercer Mayer's picture books, and his art is perfectly paired with Fitzgerald's autobiographical tales of his childhood. Read at least one of these out loud to your kids - I guarantee you will all enjoy it!
First published in 1967, The Great Brain by John D Fitzgerald is a wonderful counterpart to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series. Although I didn't read Wilder's books until I was an adult and reading them out loud to my daughter, I am sure that as a child I was predisposed to like The Great Brain books because of my familiarity and love of Mercer Mayer's illustrations. While the writing is vivid, Mayer's pictures bring the story to life. I read all seven of the books in Fitzgerald's series (an eighth, The Great Brain is Back, was published in 1995 after the author's death using notes left by Fitzgerald) as a child and still mourn the fact that they did not make it to adulthood with me. Upon rereading The Great Brain as an adult, I found it just as funny, suspenseful and hard to put down as I did when I was a kid. Sadly, only the first three books in the series are in print today, but I highly recommend tracking down all seven if you can. Each is as good as the first.
The Great Brain begins in 1896 in Adenville, Utah and, much like the books of Laura Ingalls Wilder, is fascinating for the glimpse into a not-too-distant history that it offers. The Fitzgerald family, part of the 500 non-Mormons in a town of 2,500, is made up of Mamma, Papa, Aunt Bertha (who is not a blood relation) and brothers Sweyn Dennis, Tom Dennis and John Dennis . And yes, these books are loosely autobiographical. Narrator John explains the middle names of the Fitzgerald boys with a story of a betrayal that occurred in his family in County meath Ireland over two hundred years ago. The father of the turncoat "decided that all male Fitzgeralds must bear the middle name Dennis to remind them of the cowardice of his son." What makes life in Adenville and the Fitzgerald family more interesting than a mere peek into the past is the fact that, besides being the only college educated man in town and the editor and publisher of the Adenville Weekly Advocate, Papa cannot resist ordering any new gadget or invention he sees advertised or in catalogs. The book begins with the uproar caused by the installation of the Adenville's first indoor toilet in the Fitzgerald home. While this, as well as the reaction of the townspeople, could be story enough, the book isn't called The Great Brain for nothing. When the cranky town plumber arrives two days ahead of the installation to dig trenches for the pipes and build the cesspool, Tom puts his great brain to work.
One of the things that struck me upon reading this book as an adult was the way in which different childhood was one hundred years ago. Whereas these days our houses are filled with any number of objects meant to entertain (and hopefully inspire??) our children from wooden blocks to plastic dolls to electronic devices of one kind and another, the kids in Adenville spent their free time running around in packs and playing outdoor games, exploring, fighting, swimming or watching things happen. This explains why Tom is able to charge the neighborhood kids to come and watch Mr Harvey dig for two days straight. On the first day, Mamma unwittingly offers all ten boys a cookie as they march through her house on the way to the back porch to watch the action. Seeing he is onto something, Tom invites JD to join him in his venture and sends him out to round up ten more kids to see the digging and be given a refreshment for a penny each, "No promises, no credit." Tom knows his mother will offer the next ten boys a cookie since she did so with the first ten. John gets a penny commission for every five kids he brings in. The next day Tom uses his earnings to buy cookies for the crowds and another twenty boys pay a penny each for the privilege of watching a man dig a hole. On the third day, when the crates containing the parts for the water closet arrive the station master makes such a big deal of delivering them to the door of the Fitzgerald home that most of the adults (and kids) in town arrive at the front door as well to see what all the commotion is. Despite the ribbing he gets from the station master and the dismay of the onlookers, Mr Fitzgerald graciously invites everyone inside to see the assembled toilet in action - and to convince them that he is not crazy and that this indoor plumbing will not stink up the house. Everyone heads home for evening chores and dinner without the kids getting a chance to see the water closet (the adults elbowed them out of the way) leaving Tom yet another money making venture for the next day. However, his mother catches on and scolds Tom for charging the kids for something that his father allowed the adults to view for free. She makes JD head back out with the sign and barker's bell that he used to attract kids in the first place, this time inviting them in for free.
Mamma, who has a pretty great (and judicious) brain herself, figures out that Tom must have charged the kids to watch the two days of digging as well and makes him refund the money, even to the kids who get in line for a refund twice. Then, when Tom tries to recoup some of his losses by convincing JD that he should pay out ten cents of his own money even though he only earned two, Mamma steps in and counters Tom's argument by pointing out that, while the boys are equally guilty morally, John is only a ten percent partner and therefore only responsible for ten percent of the loss. I realize that life was more black and white back then, but one thing I love about The Great Brain books is the certainty and authority with which the parents, especially the Fitzgerald parents, act. And, while Tom uses his great brain to earn and sometimes swindle as much money as possible out of his friends and occasionally adults, he has a strong (although sometimes squishy) moral compass as well. Whether it's helping to find two lost brothers and their dog (because he had planned to mate JD's pure bread dog in a town full of mutts with the brothers' purebred and sell the pups) or helping a boy who lost his leg find his sense of self-worth again, Tom manages to out think those involved and, when occasioned, point out the value of his thinking and be compensated for it. The great part of the book that will be lost on some readers is listening to Tom rationalize the perks he gets. He really does have a great brain and the ability to overlook things that might give others pause. While he takes on the causes of the underdogs, like the boy who lost his leg or the new boy who has immigrated from Greece and dresses differently and speaks not a word of English, he doesn't do it entirely out of the goodness of his own heart. And, in the end, what he does proves so great that the adults involved are happy to pay Tom for his efforts.
If you and your children like Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, I am sure you will love The Great Brain as well. As a kid, my favorite book in the series was book 4, The Great Brain at the Academy. Adenville consists of a one-room school house that goes up to grade six. Anyone wanting their children to have a higher education sends them to boarding school or with relatives who live near a school. The Fitzgeralds send Sweyn to a Catholic boarding Academy in Salt Lake City that serves grades seven and eight. Tom attends for one year until a school is built in Adenville for grade seven and eight. The Great Brain at the Academy and has some suspenseful moments and a more contiguous story line, whereas The Great Brain is more episodic. As the above illustration from The Great Brain illustrates, education in Adenville can be pretty eventful too, especially when a new teacher takes the place of an understanding, beloved, retiring one. Tom uses his great brain and some pretty adult thinking to drive this paddle wielding tyrant out of town but is stopped from destroying him altogether when his father catches on to his plan.
I think that The Great Brain makes a fabulous read out loud, although, upon reading it as an adult, I realized that there are some parts that might take more explaining that you care to or want to give young listeners (5 and under) that involve alcohol, religious intolerance, bigotry, and suicide. I realize that it sounds like I am describing a teen novel or an Oprah Book Club selection, but every one of these aspects has a relatively small and well placed home in the book and is handled with appropriate attention. I appreciated the presence of these real life issues and situations, especially since I feel like Laura Ingalls Wilder sometimes willfully avoided or glossed over some of the harsher realities of existence in her books which, admittedly had quite a bit of hardship even so.