Monday, June 20, 2011

A Great Brain, A Money-Loving Heart, and Another Time

Guest post by Jeremy D. Swanson, Esq. on a series of books that he read and loved growing up. This post has Jonathan's approval as he was also a fan of The Great Brain growing up.


As a boy growing up in the city in the 1980's, I loved books about adventure, the outdoors, and the old west. One of my favorite sets of books was the Great Brain series, written in the 1960's about a family (and particularly three brothers) who grew up in Utah near the turn of the century in a fictional town called Adenville. The stories are based loosely on the experiences of the author, John D. Fitzgerald, but a fair amount of liberty is taken with dates and family circumstances. The result is an all-time classic set of stories.

The stories are written from the perspective of John D., the youngest of three brothers in a family of Catholics in a town that was overwhelmingly Mormon. Although religion is not an overriding theme of the books, the feeling of being outnumbered and a bit different from your neighbors is present in a lot of stories. The "Great Brain" in the title is John D's older brother, the middle brother Tom D., who is both smart and conniving. He drags poor John D into a number of scrapes and schemes, urged on by his "money loving heart" and his desire to come out on top not only in his dealings with the other kids in town, but with his own family and the adults of the town.

John D gets dragged into one swindle or money making scheme after another, from card games to bets on horse races, to selling tickets to see the family’s new “magic water closet.” Somehow John D always ends up losing money, but learning a valuable lesson in human nature along the way. The best part is how fast-talking Tom D manages to convince folks that he is doing them a favor by taking their money, and how John D always ends up being grateful to Tom for not telling their parents how greedy and selfish he was being before losing money to one of Tom’s shenanigans.

These books come from what appears, on the surface, to be a much simpler time. The boys of the town are independent and make up all sorts of games around town once their chores are done, there is a community feel to the town, and no one thinks it odd that young boys would head off to the swimming hole all day on a Saturday, unsupervised. Parents assume there will be fights and kids will get hurt from time to time, and they only step in if it gets out of hand or dangerous. (This is only when they find out about the hijinks, however, as the code of not being a snitch is present and a major force in the life of all ten year old boys.) A good tidbit of the flavor of the books is as follows:

"Adenville had a population of twenty-five hundred people, of which about two thousand were Mormons and the rest Catholics and Protestants. 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."

Fitzgerald began his literary career writing in the 1950's for adults. He wrote family stories about his experiences growing up, and although his first couple of books were moderately well received, he was soon told that 'America no longer wanted to read books about family life.' The reading public had moved on, which nicely coincided with the time when a fair chunk of America decided it no longer needed family life at all. The era that produced classics like 'Life With Father' and 'Cheaper By The Dozen' made way for a newer, brasher set of books like 'Don't Stop the Carnival,' "Fairenheit 451," and "Lord of the Flies." Progress cannot be stopped, as we're so often told, and if you can trade the 'Grandma's Attic' books for 'The Catcher In The Rye' you've just GOT to do it, right?! But I digress. So family stories faded away into the realm where so many good things go for a time: Children's Literature. (The land where fantasy, fairy tales, magic, dragons, and other wonderful things resided until authors like C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and a host of golden age science fiction writers liberated them into the world at large again.)

Fitzgerald's editor suggested he re-write his latest offering as a kid's book, and The Great Brain was born. There are eight books in the series, all of high quality and all fairly similar. Although written primarily for boys, this series will entertain everyone in the family, including the parents. It’s well worth following along with the Fitzgerald family as they grow up, go away to Catholic boarding school, start a rafting company on the river, and build a roller coaster in the back yard to separate all the local boys from their hard-earned allowances. The books have a very good heart, and Tom D does use his Great Brain for good (and profit) on occasion, helping a neighbor boy to learn to walk and do his chores with a peg leg (in exchange for an erector set which he would then rent out for a penny an hour) and teaching a Greek immigrant boy how to fit into an American town by teaching him to play traditional games and wrestle his way out of a fight (in exchange for cold, hard cash, of course, but still).

If you’re able to get versions of these books (hardbacks are hard to find, but they are beginning to be reprinted) make sure to get an edition with the original Mercer Mayer illustrations, as they capture the spirit of the books and definitely enhance the reading experience.


Jeremy is an attorney in Bakersfield, CA who has his own personal home library that I am extremely jealous of. He is a fanatic reader, one smart cookie, and a very good friend. (I say that, of course, because he practices many areas of law and it's good to have such useful friends. And also because it's true.)


Stephanie Kay said...

Sounds like a fun set of books. I'll have to remember them for the future when my own 3 boys are a little older.

Taia said...

Read these- all of them I think. They're the sort of thing I pick up at used book sales because I like this sort of book.

Annette W. said...

These sound good! Thanks for sharing, Jeremy!

Ami said...

Loved, loved, loved these - growing up and now!

Amy @ Hope Is the Word said...

I've heard of this series but never read it. Thanks for the nudge!

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