rating: 2 of 5 stars
This review is for the entire Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald. The series is comprised of eight books, the first seven of which were published from 1967 to 1976 and the last one was published posthumously in 1995 from notes left by the author. There is also a great Publisher's Note that I will discuss toward the end of this review.
Overall, I would say that the first two books are the best by far and the first five are worth reading as a set. The last three books are like return visits to a favorite village but are hardly great novels. The first two books, The Great Brain and More Adventures of the Great Brain, read like one high quality novel, telling the story of Tom D. Fitzgerald, aka the Great Brain, from the point of view of John D. Fitzgerald. The stories take place in the town of Adenville, Utah in 1896. The Great Brain is acknowledged as clever by everyone but, as J.D. points out, his money-loving heart directs that brain into developing schemes to bankrupt the other kids and fill Tom's coffers. A lot of the fun of these first two books is the narrative conflict between the hero worshipping John and the tricks his brother plays on him and his friends.
The next three books develop the idea logically. Me and My Little Brain is the story of John trying to be like the Great Brain. Tom has gone away to boarding school and the Fitzgeralds adopt an orphan named Frankie. John doesn't have Tom's talent for scheming and is constantly caught and punished but he does have a good heart, and courage, and manages to save Frankie from an outlaw and earn a reward.
The Great Brain at the Academy tells the story of what Tom was doing at his Catholic boarding school -- tricking other kids there and sneaking around the Monsignors who ran the place.
In The Great Brain Reforms, the series comes to a logical conclusion. Partly because of Frankie's perspective, and in large part because he's just older and wiser, John recognizes that Tom is a bit of a jerk. He's constantly tricking other kids into losing bets to win their baseball gloves or other Christmas gifts when Tom has more than enough money just to buy those items from himself. It's also clear that the Fitzgeralds are more prosperous than many other in Adenville. John finally organizes the kids of the town and they put Tom on trial. His sentence is to be shunned by all the kids but the sentence is suspended if he agrees to reform.
The last three books of the series tell more stories of town, but now that J.D. is no longer naive, the stories just seem like trickster tales without any narrative irony or moral weight.
The last book has a publisher's note that explains some of the observations I've made here. Apparently The Great Brain originated as the second sequel to Papa Married a Mormon, Fitzgerald's best-selling novel for adults. In that book, he explains why John D's father came to Utah -- to fulfill his mother's dying wish that he keep an eye on a wayward brother who was a brawling saloon keeper. That book explains the presence of Aunt Bertha, tells stories of Brownie the dog, and tells of the adoption of an orphan boy, but unlike Frankie, this boy is orphaned when his father drinks himself to death. John's brother Tom refers to himself as The Great Brain but all of his schemes go awry. All is set in the familiar Adenville, as well as Silverlode, the mining camp that is described as a ghost town in the Great Brain books.
By the time Fitzgerald finished writing the third book in his series for adults, two things had changed. The adult market no longer found a place for family stories and his editor had moved to a different publishing house. Fitzgerald's agent sent the book to the editor, E.L. Doctorow, at the new publishing house where the manuscript was read by the editor of children's books. She loved the book, asked that it be cut in half and the adult themes be excised and The Great Brain was born.
This may explain why the first two books of the series seem of the same high quality and almost to be the same novel. (Papa runs to almost 300 pages whereas the Great Brain books are usually just over 100.) The publisher's note also mentions that "I had a constant struggle with him not to let Tom reform." It seems clear to me that Fitzgerald would have been happy with the morally and narratively satisfying conclusion of book 5's trial.
All in all, I've enjoyed re-reading these books (and reading Papa and TGB is Back for the first time). I've also looked over Fitzgerald's co-written Structuring Your Novel. He had some pretty solid rules there. The Great Brain books, 1-5 constitute a great epic story for children or adults. And for those who can't get enough (like me), there's three more helpings of Adenville lore.
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