Monday, July 2, 2007

The Great Brain

I'm not one to get all mushy about kids' books--I'm of the opinion that the vast majority of them are utter crap, even the award winners--but right now I'm reading my kids John D. Fitzgerald's The Great Brain series, my absolute favorite books when I was my older son's age--around ten. The books are a series of anecdotes based upon the author's childhood in Utah, and in one of the only Catholic families in a largely Mormon area at the end of the 19th century. The narrator, J.D., is a stand-in for the author, and the stories are ostensibly about his brother Tom, a self-styled "Great Brain" who is always getting into--and slipping out of--trouble, or thinking up some (usually successful) money-making scheme.

Of course the stories are really about J.D.'s tremendous powers of observation, and the books comprise an unusually complete and utterly satisfying narrative universe. With their brother, Sweyn, the boys grapple with real moral dilemmas and genuine life problems, including the starving death of a peddler for which the whole town is responsible; the near-suicide and rehabilitation of a boy who has lost a leg; and the recasting of a villainous private-school master as a thoughtful and reasonable man. Fitzgerald constantly calls all his most acute observations into question, and little ever goes as expected. Meanwhile, the characters serve as real role models--I was aware of this even when I was a child, and consciously aspired to Tom's cleverness, Sweyn's maturity, J.D.'s articulateness, their parents' judiciousness and good humor. I hope my kids do the same.

By the way, these books are still in print, and still bearing the terrific illustrations, by Mercer Mayer, that I remember. A nice change of pace from the usual W6 "This book is great but good luck finding a copy."

4 comments:

Trevor said...

I read these books to tatters. Glad to know they're still around.

About all I recall, other than loving them, is the water closet their father installs in the house, the roller coaster which results in one of the other kids getting gangrene from a rusty nail and needing his foot (leg?) amputated, and, most memorable, the "silent treatment" as punishment.

jrlennon said...

Yes, certain of those story elements have stuck with me more powerfully than anything else I've read. For me the most memorable one was the way Tom makes a key to the Academy storeroom by pressing the real key into a bar of soap, then carving a replica out of wood. Awesome.

BLAKE said...

i'm so happy to see you writing about this series. i too read them as a child, voraciously: certain issues i read 5-10 times each. i still have tapes of me at 9 recording myself reading them aloud so i could listen while i went to sleep. the boy's school one with the soap key and sneaking out to get candy sticks in my mind. and the 'water closet'. the ill child with the rocking horse. they don't make em like that too often.

wenzel.hellgren said...

dude, those were like my favorite books when I was a kid too. I read them over and over and over.