The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald x 3

May 19, 2017

Maxwell, as I've mentioned in many many posts, is my child who is very difficult to find good reading material for. He's a strong reader, so we don't have any problems there, but he is fairly resistant to most of my suggestions and is quite strong-willed and opinionated (although, in all fairness to him, he's made a concentrated effort to be more open minded in the last month, and I think that's pretty self-aware for a seven-year-old).

Anyway, several months ago I was bemoaning his stubborness yet again, and one of my virtual friends, Beth, commented that he might like The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald. I loved The Great Brain when I read it as a kid, and I'd been waiting for years for the right moment to introduce it to my kids. Beth's suggestion made me think maybe the time had come, and so I ordered the first three for Maxwell's birthday (and felt super annoyed when I couldn't get all three in the same edition--why does Amazon do that?).

Max wanted me to read them aloud, and that was fine with me because I couldn't wait to revisit some of my favorite chapters, and I was pretty sure Aaron and Bradley would enjoy them just as much as Max.

"Enjoy" is probably not a strong enough word for how much these boys liked these books. They inhaled every word. Each chapter had them sitting tensely with baited breath or laughing out loud or bouncing up and down with excitement and always, always, begging me to read just a little more.

These books are the somewhat autobiographical (and probably heavily embellished) account of John's growing up years in a small Utah town in the 1890's. He has two older brothers, Sven and Tom. John (or J.D., as everyone calls him) has the greatest respect and admiration for Tom, who always manages to turn a profit while looking like he has another person's best interests at heart (and that person is quite often J.D. himself).

For example, Tom charges a fee when the neighbor kids come by to see his family's brand new water closet (the first in the town!). Another time, he helps the new Greek kid learn how to fight so he won't be picked on by the other boys. And later, in the second book, his father takes all three boys camping, and Tom secretly marks a trail because he is certain they're going to get lost (and they do). After Tom catches the infamous "ghost" of Silverlode, Papa complains to Momma,"Why, oh, why did you have to give birth to a son who hasn't given us a moment's peace since the day he was born?"

The few times J.D. tries to follow Tom's example end disastrously (as when he purposely contracts the mumps because he never gets any diseases first and he wants to gloat over Tom and Sven when they get it after him; that was definitely one of our very favorite chapters). But eventually, in the third book, J.D. learns how to put his own little brain to work in a way that is uniquely his own.

Partway through our marathon reading of these books, Max asked me, "Mom, who do you think is the great brain in our family?" And I had to laugh because I think, to the rest of us, it is as obvious as a spotlight beaming down and an arrow pointing right at him: Maxwell! Maxwell! He is always coming up with plans that directly benefit him, but he gives them just the right slant to make them seem like he's being really noble and generous. As a parent, I have to be really vigilant about making sure he's not being too unfair to his siblings (or to me!). But rather than feeling like he'd found a kindred spirit, he was a little indignant each time Tom pulled one over on J.D., not realizing how similar his own tactics are when he's dealing with Bradley.

Since I'd already read the first book in the series, I was well aware of the similarity between Tom and Maxwell, and because of this, I was slightly wary about handing it over to him. What kinds of ideas would it put into his head? What might he think was okay after reading about what Tom did?

My worries were not totally unfounded. In spite of how much I liked these books, there's a lot going on that I really wouldn't want my boys to copy. One of the chapters I was most worried about was the last chapter in the first book, where J.D.'s friend, Andy, wants to commit suicide because he lost his leg after stepping on a rusty nail and he feels completely useless. J.D. agrees to help and after a failed attempt at drowning and another at hanging, Tom takes over and helps Andy relearn how to do everything so he no longer feels useless. This is actually one of my favorite chapters in the series, but I was worried that my kids would find it disturbing. However, it ends on such a positive note that I needn't have worried a bit.

Instead, what I should have been concerned about was the chapter where Abie Glassman, a Jewish peddler, starves and dies in his home without anyone in the town realizing until it's too late. Or I should have been worried about almost the entire third book where first, a little boy loses his mother, father, and brother in a tragic rock slide, and then later in the book, that same little boy gets taken hostage by a wicked and violent man (of course, since I hadn't read the third book before, it was as much a surprise to me as to my kids). Mixed in with all the humorous escapades, there were some mature themes as well as some fairly violent content. I think I probably would have waited on the third book if I'd known what was coming, but once we were into it, they wouldn't let me stop, and it ended up having a pretty fantastic ending.

But bigger issues aside, John and Tom and Sven are just typical boys growing up around the turn of the twentieth century, and what I mean by "typical boys" is that they wrestle, fight, or compete at every turn. As a mom and a girl, I can't understand it. I don't see where the appeal is in pinning each other to the ground. My boys, on the other hand, totally seemed to get it. It reminded me that girls and boys really are wired differently and that boys are just naturally more physical (they were in 1890, and they still are in 2017). I've always said that my kids were born knowing how to wrestle, and it appears J.D. and his brothers were, too. That said, it's not as if I want my boys starting up fights at school (or frankly, with each other), so even the more mild content needed a healthy dose of discussion to go along with it.

All this makes it sound like I didn't enjoy reading these books to my kids but quite the opposite is true. They are among some of our very favorite readalouds to date, but I would definitely recommend that they be just that--read aloud--because there was a lot I wanted to help them process.


  1. Wow, I got mentioned! I feel honored.

    I had forgotten about some of the darker events, although I did remember that there was a lot I wouldn't want my kids to emulate. My older son especially had some trouble keeping his hands to himself, and reading books like this makes me think that in many ways he would have had an easier time of it if he were born decades earlier, when people didn't think all six year olds should be ready to sit still all day.

    I'm not sure it's a boy vs girl thing -- I know many girls who had the same problem. I think my sample is skewed because if they were friends with my guy they by definition were a bit rowdy while young, and also my niece is more athletic than my kids can dream of. So I don't think "boy" when I think "loves to wrestle" or even just "thinks physically." But it's definitely something we are primed to think of for our boys.

  2. Those passages you mention are our favourites too! We've only read the first book but loved it

  3. I thought that I hadn't read these books yet, but I remember every single story from the first book, so I must have read that one.

  4. Hey, hop on over and join us on Facebook. We are under "The Great Brain Series." We also have a closed reading group if you want to enjoy them again. Wonderful review/overview. Thank you.


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