Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald

Source of book: Audiobook from the library - but I own the entire series and read it multiple times as a kid.

If you haven’t discovered the Great Brain series, you really should. The semi-autobiographical series set in Utah at the end of the 1800s by John Fitzgerald is really quite funny, yet full of more serious stuff than you might imagine. The basic setup is the same for each book. John D. is the youngest Fitzgerald sibling, and he narrates the story. The parents are Papa, an Irish Catholic, and Mama, of Danish descent. (The real life Mama was a Mormon, but in the books, she is Catholic as well.) The oldest kid, Sweyn, is a pretty typical kid; but Tom is a bit too smart for his own good, and proves to be a con man in the making. John is the gullible little brother.

The family lives in the (mostly) fictional town of Adenville, Utah, in the “Dixie” southwest part of the state. The author was raised in Price, Utah - as was my father-in-law. Adenville is mostly fictional because it appears that such a place did exist once upon a time - it is now a ghost town somewhere west of Cedar City which is mentioned in an obscure book, although it was never as big of a town as the author makes it out to be. Rather, it is most likely that the name and geography of Adenville was combined with the town life of Price to create the story.

(True story: Although I haven’t yet written about Zion National Park - stay tuned - my family practically lived there in my teens. We traveled to St. George multiple times a year for quick weekends of hiking and exploring. As a result, I got to know the area pretty well, and located a few towns that matched the description - particularly the ill-fated camping trip in one of the books. Still my best guess: Adamsville, just west of Beaver. It even has a mining town (Minersville rather than Silverlode) nearby, and the Beaver River would have fit with the stories too. Yeah, I was a weird kid. Anyway, a piece of my heart will always be in the Utah wilderness.) 

 Perhaps the real-life Adenville was closer to the Escalante Desert, but I still think Adamsville is a solid choice.

The Great Brain is the first of seven books published between 1967 and 1976. There is an eighth book, published posthumously from notes which I haven’t read. These books came about a decade after Fitzgerald wrote Papa Married a Mormon, which, while still fiction, was intended for adults, and hewed closer to the actual facts of his upbringing than the Great Brain books, which were aimed at children.

One of the reasons that these books remain a favorite of mine is that they combine laugh-out-loud humor with surprisingly serious themes. Just in this first book, there are two stories about racial prejudice, with serious results. In two other episodes, two brothers nearly die after getting lost in a cave, and a young boy attempts suicide after having a leg amputated. And this is just the first book! Later books also explore religious prejudice, terminal illness, the trauma of losing one’s entire family, and more. And yet, reading them, you spend most of your time laughing. I guess this is a sign of good children’s literature.

The book opens with a description of growing up Catholic in a Mormon town. While all non-Mormons are minorities in Adenville, Catholics are particularly so, being outnumbered by the Protestants. All the Mormons attend the same church - the big one. The Catholics and Protestants must make common cause and form a mutual church, and hire a mutually acceptable preacher, who “preaches strictly from the Bible” so that he doesn’t take sides on denominational issues. Once a year, a revivalist comes to town for the Protestants, and an itinerant priest comes likewise to baptize babies and perform weddings.

For the Fitzgerald boys, however, religion takes on a different color. Because they are the odd kids out, they are forced to demand respect, frontier style. As J. D. explains it in the opening chapter, they had to teach the other kids respect and tolerance - by licking every kid their size and smaller in a fight.

Mormons and non-Mormons had learned to live together with some degree of tolerance and understanding by that time. But tolerance hadn’t come easy for my oldest brother, Sweyn, my brother Tom, and myself. Most of our playmates were Mormon kids, but we taught them tolerance. It was just a question of us all learning how to fight good enough for Sweyn to whip every Mormon kid his age, Tom to whip every Mormon kid his age, and for me to whip every Mormon kid my age in town. After all, there is nothing as tolerant and understanding as a kid you can whip.

Even more than 30 years after I first read that last line, it still cracks me up. And it really is true about childhood anywhere. Sadly, tolerance and understanding do not come naturally to everyone, and sometimes you have to teach it. I’m not exactly a fighter - and I have always been small for my age. But I scrapped a bit in my day, and my brother and I had a reputation of being stronger than we looked. We’ll still bulldog you to death at soccer - we don’t quit or whine.

Tom D., aka The Great Brain, is an interesting character. He has some sociopathic qualities - he’s always out to make a buck, and takes advantage of J. D. all the time. However, he has his standards, and he is hardly a bad person in most situations. For example, it is Tom that takes the Greek immigrant boy, Basil, under his wing, and teaches him English and how to fight and get along in American society. Admittedly, he has his eyes on getting compensated for his trouble, but he is also genuinely concerned for Basil, and refuses to swindle a helpless mark. Likewise, it is Tom who steps in to prevent Andy’s suicide attempt (which the unwitting John is naively willing to assist with) and restore his sense of self worth. If anything, Tom is most interested in pulling the wool over the eyes of the adults, who (with the notable exception of Mama) are at least a step or two behind the workings of the Great Brain. (This is why my favorite book of the series is The Great Brain at the Academy, where Tom snookers the Jesuit priests at his boarding school - they are a mark truly worthy of his talents.)

I do want to mention the darker episodes in this book. First, when Abie, the Jewish peddler, is encouraged to set up a shop in town, it is inevitable that he will fail. And the author actually allows him to starve to death. It is in the speech to the townfolk at the funeral that Papa - who (as the later books demonstrate) is all too aware of fate of outsiders in a mostly homogenous community - that the problem becomes apparent. Abie doesn’t die because people hate him, but because they don’t notice that there is something wrong. Because he is the “other,” he just isn’t on their radar the way that even a fellow Protestant would have been to the town Protestants. Certainly someone would have seen that things were going wrong had a Mormon - if anything, the Mormons are legendary for caring for their own tribe when needed.

I think this is a really important lesson in these days as well. When we envision private charity magically taking over for the safety net, we tend to miss the fact that outsiders (particularly if they know they are outsiders) being too proud or embarrassed to ask for help. And, unlike those who are insiders in some way, we just won’t notice as they starve to death or die for lack of health care. And it isn’t that we would refuse to help. We just wouldn’t notice the need.

The other episode also rings true. Basil is bullied by Sammy, the son of a miner father who is deeply prejudiced against immigrants. When Tom asks Papa about it, Papa explains that Sammy’s father is always complaining about immigrants coming and taking jobs from “real” Americans. Tom, who is no fool, notes that Sammy’s grandfather was an immigrant. Papa explains further:

“When you come right down to it, we are all immigrants except for the Indians. What men like Mr. Leeds fail to understand is that it is the mingling of the different cultures, talents, and know-how of the different nationalities which will one day make this the greatest nation on earth. All intolerant persons must have somebody or something to hate. Mr. Leeds is an intolerant person who hates immigrants.”

In listening to this book again, I realized that this (along with similar things my parents taught me) has shaped my views to this day. This is why I recommend these books to people time and again. It is also why, when the GOP made the switch in the last decade from being at least tolerant to immigration to adopting the hateful anti-immigration rhetoric of the KKK of a century ago, I couldn’t go along with it. And now, I am left wondering if the people I know who keep repeating these horrible and untrue things about immigrants are just influenced by too much Fox News, Breitbart, and Milo Yiannopoulos - or if they are intolerant persons who just need somebody or something to hate. (And this also applies to those who seem obsessed with making sure LGBTQ people can be denied employment, housing, and government services…maybe you just need somebody to hate.)

Just a few more observations about these books. It is a well known truism that many children’s books rely on the “dead parents” to exist. Kind of hard to have certain adventures if the parents are right there, after all. These books are a definite exception. Not only is a parent present, both parents are, and are in an intact nuclear family. Furthermore, both parents are involved, intelligent, and helpful. (Although they aren’t exactly helicopter parents - times were different, and few parents would, for example, let the 12 and 10 year olds teach the 7 year old how to swim in the river, without adult supervision.) Both Papa and Mama are admirable, well drawn characters, who love their kids, and do right by them. They are also pretty progressive for their time, earning their kids’ respect without resort to the violence which is endemic in other families of the time. Because whippings are not an option, they talk to the kids as if they were rational human beings, able to understand ethics and empathy - and they do.

While these books have a particular setting - long ago in a small town - they have universal appeal because the human characters are universal. While we may not know someone quite like the Great Brain, we know people who are at least a bit like him. And we know more who are like Sammy, and Basil, and John, and Uncle Mark, and the other denizens of Adenville. And life in Adenville, just as in Mayberry, isn’t the idyllic version we sometimes remember. There is prejudice, hate, death, sadness, and angst too, and problems to be solved that stem from the darker side of human nature. Fitzgerald doesn’t sugar coat these at all - but he has optimism that decent people can and will make a difference. That the Toms and Papas and Mamas of the world will stand up for immigrants, that they will agonize over their role in the hardship the poor suffer, that they will insist that life is worth living and that people are worth helping and that love and decency and goodness can and will triumph over hate and intolerance and indifference if we make it happen.

Don’t let me create the wrong impression. These books are not heavy - they are filled with humor, slapstick, and silliness in good measure too. They just have more depth than you would expect from them. The whole series is worth reading. You can probably jump in anywhere, but they are best read in chronological order. I also recommend finding the original Mercer Mayer illustrations if you can - they are so very good. 

This audiobook was read by Ron McLarty, who is fine. I haven’t really checked to see if the other books can be found in audiobook form, but I suspect they can somewhere.


The author had a rather varied life, starting out as a Jazz Drummer, and working at just about everything - including serving as a staffer on Wendell Willkie's presidential campaign. It is hard to find now, but Papa Married a Mormon is worth reading if you can find it. Fitzgerald also wrote a couple of textbooks on creative writing.


  1. Fantastic overview. I have been a Great Brain fan since 1976. I was so caught up with it, I went on a decade long research project about it. You have caught the essence of the books beautifully. We do have a Facebook group about the books if you are interested. Thanks. Keep reading.

  2. I LOVE the Great Brain books and read them avidly as a kid. I bought them for my kids. We are Mormon but I feel it is hugely important to know and have my kids know these books. (My favorite part was also when he was at Catholic school in SLC and had a blackmarket candy smuggling ring hahaha) the jewish man starving to death STILL affects me, though I wish the author had gone into more detail of why Mormons were so insular and bought from other Mormon vendors. Their early history made it unsafe for them to do otherwise. But it was still so valuable to me and such great literature. I truly love those books and hope they never go out of print.