I know I have written about this magical place before, but I need to reiterate that for a kid who loved to read, there was no greater place on earth than The New England Mobile Book Fair. It was a huge wholesale book warehouse in my hometown, and my mom’s favorite place to go. While she browsed the aisles looking for paperbacks by Ngaio Marsh, Barbara Pym, Dorothy Sayers, and MC Beaton, I would sit on the concrete floor, way in the back corner of the building, where the kids book series were (and also tons of those awesome invisible ink “yes and no” books. Those were amazing.) I bought box sets of paperbacks by Judy Blume, EB White, Daniel M Pinkwater, and John D Fitzgerald. I didn’t always know the books before I picked them out, but I figured if they were being sold in a set, they must be pretty good.
And that’s how I discovered The Great Brain. I had the box set with the first five books in the series: The Great Brain, More Adventures of The Great Brain, Me and My Little Brain, The Great Brain at the Academy, and The Great Brain Reforms.
These books are about John “JD” Fitzgerald, the youngest of three brothers (and later older brother to an adopted fourth brother) in rural Utah in the late 1800s. JD lives in the shadow of his brother Tom, “the Great Brain”, who he sees as a great thinker and problem solver, but who the rest of the town sees as a smart kid who is on his way to being a con man.
I loved these books. I can remember reading the first book at least 50 times. I was obsessed with one part in particular, when the boys’ friend Andy Anderson (I know!) steps on a rusty nail, has his leg amputated, and wants to die, because his dad thinks a boy with a peg leg is worthless. As a kid, I thought Tom’s solution to Andy’s situation was absolutely amazing.
As an adult, I was horrified by the whole thing. Tom conned Andy out of the one thing in his life he loved, his brand new erector set. He taught Andy how to walk, run, and balance himself, sure, but he still only did it for selfish reasons. Meanwhile, while Tom was trying to teach Andy how to relearn everything he already knew, JD was trying to help Andy commit suicide. Wow. I didn’t remember it being so dark.
And that’s pretty much the experience I had rereading these first 5 books.
Sure, Tom solves lots of problems, and even saves a few lives, which is great. But he only helps out for selfish reasons, usually involving money. Tom is obsessed with money and will do anything for a few dollars. He takes and takes and takes, and is shocked when, in the fifth book, all of the kids who have previously been cheated and swindled by Tom put him on trial and refuse to be his friend any longer. I only vaguely remember that part from my childhood, but it was most certainly my favorite part as an adult. Tom is, quite frankly, the worst.
Over the course of the books, here are a few of the “good deeds” that Tom does for the town: he saves two young boys who get lost in a cave, he finds his way home after his dad gets the boys lost on a camping trip, he saves the town from being completely ruined by a couple of real conmen, he organizes a funeral for the town’s beloved stray dog, sure, he does a few good things here and there. But most of the time, we find out after the fact, that Tom had selfish reasons to do so. Usually involving money, or the chance to make money.
And here are a few of the misguided, and awful things that Tom does: he prints a newspaper filled with nasty gossip and hearsay, he gets a teacher fired (by setting him up as an alcoholic) because the teacher was mean to him, he charges kids money for absurd things like looking at flushing toilet in his house (the first installed in town) or playing basketball in his yard, he swindles kids out of their most prized possessions just because he can, he cheats at games so he can win money, he lies to priests who are mean to him… Good god. I could go on and on.
All of the things that I thought were cool when I was a kid just infuriated me as an adult. And Tom’s parents annoyed me, too. Time and time again, Tom would assure them that he was “reformed” and “doing the right thing,” and they always believed him, until it was too late, and they realized he was conning them too.
The books are a fascinating slice of life at a certain time. The Fitzgerald family were Catholic in a mostly mormon area, and had to send their boys away to Salt Lake City after 6th grade in order to get a catholic education, and there was little to no understanding of other cultures or religions. There was a lot of fighting and name calling that would not be seen as acceptable if written today. Indoor plumbing and telephones were brand new. Taking a train was a big deal. Girls had to wear dresses all the time. And kids who didn’t do their chores or disrespected their parents, well, they got “whipped.”
The books were really interesting to reread after so many years. There were tons of parts I remembered vividly: JD getting the mumps on purpose so he could force his brothers to get them, too. The warning on the train to Salt Lake City that if you opened the window, you could get a burning cinder in your eye. Tom making a key out of a bar of soap and a whittled piece of wood. The Fitzgeralds getting a toilet installed in their house and being the laughingstocks of the town. Tom teaching the new kid from Greece how to be a real, American boy. Tom rubbing liver on the bottom of his shoes so that the dogs he was with would be able to find their way out of a dark cave. And JD learning to swim by his brothers just throwing him off of a diving board into a deep swimming hole.
But I really didn’t remember the big trial at the pinnacle of The Great Brain Reforms. Tom gets an idea to run a rafting business, so he and JD build a raft and charge kids for rides down the river. When it is clear that a storm is coming and the river levels are dangerously unsafe, Tom ignores all of the warnings, keeps running trips, and has a terrible accident, where a few of his friends almost die. After that, all of the kids from the previous books come together to complain about how he cheated them or stole from them, or caused them to be beaten or otherwise punished by their parents. They put on a makeshift trial, Tom is found guilty, and he returns everything that he has swindled from the other kids in town: sports equipment, coonskin caps, knives, air rifles, and assorted other toys and games. And Tom makes a big speech about feeling remorse and changing his ways, but we all know that those are just words, and Tom’s ‘great brain’ is already planning his next scheme.
I honestly can’t remember if I ever read the next two books in the series: The Return of the Great Brain and The Great Brain Does it Again, but I’ll try to see if I can get them on my kindle. I kind of need to know what happens to Tom after the trial and his “reformation”.
I’m so glad I resisted these classics. While I viewed them differently than I did as a kid, I still loved them. And I love the memories that the books brought back to me, the days shopping for books with my mom, and coming home with something new that I had discovered at the Book Fair.