Tue. May 15
The Great Brain Novels: In Schemes Begin Responsibilities
Tom Fitzgerald is more than just the smartest kid in town. In the semi-autobiographical series of “Great Brain” novels penned by John D. Fitzgerald, Tom comes across as part Richard Feynman, part P. T. Barnum. Inventive, charismatic, and sometimes amoral, Tom is blessed with a “great brain” but tempted throughout the series by a “money-loving heart.”
The books, set in rural Utah in the 1900s and narrated by a fictionalized version of John Fitzgerald, are full of period detail and adventure. John traps a horse thief and Tom figures out how to rescue men from a cave; there are secret keys whittled out of soap, tricks for catching fish with luminescent bait, bullies thwarted, and con men outconned.
The books wear their morals lightly. The reader comes to love Tom as much as his brother does, even when he’s at his very worst—thoughtlessly endangering the lives of other children by selling them raft-ride tickets, even though the river is at full flood and far too dangerous for a little raft. That incident causes the other kids to finally reject Tom and put him on trial, and although he tries to defend himself at first, when he drops his defenses he admits that he was terribly wrong. His repentance is genuine and moving, giving readers a model for their own most humbling moments.
As the child-endangerment plotline of The Great Brain Reforms might suggest, the books don’t shy away from harsh realities. They deal with religious intolerance: A Jewish peddler dies of starvation, not because of overt actions by the townsfolk but simply because no one thought to check up on him since he wasn’t “one of us.” The books show children in emotional anguish. A young boy named Frankie comes to live with the Fitzgerald family when his own family is killed in an accident; he’s totally overwhelmed by his loss at first, almost feral, biting Mamma and running away from the Fitzgerald home. Over time he becomes part of the family, but his pain isn’t prettified. In perhaps the most disturbing episode of the series, a boy whose leg has been amputated at the knee attempts suicide because he believes he has become useless. Tom puts his great brain to work and comes up with all kinds of tricks and ploys to help the kid adapt to his peg-leg, but more importantly, he challenges Andy to accept and adapt to his new situation, in keeping with the hopeful, compassionate tone of the books.
The Great Brain books, illustrated by Mercer Mayer, recreate a lost American world. They take childhood seriously as a moral arena, but never devolve into Goofus-and-Gallant caricatures. Tom is a kid who sells tickets to see the new toilet, cheats at the annual Mormons-vs.-Gentiles tug o’ war, and gives a Greek immigrant boy the self-confidence to make friends and overcome ostracism. The books’ moral standards are stern but forgiving (like the children’s parents). They’re able to make the reader empathize with Tom’s boisterous pride, and yet acknowledge his need for humility. Tom is always great; the reader roots for him to be good, as well.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet/. She has written for Commonweal, USA Today, and the Weekly Standard, among other publications.