The Great Brain was a series written in the 1960s and 1970s by John D. Fitzgerald of quasi-autobiographical stories from his own childhood. The narrator is also named John D. Fitzgerald, but John is not the eponymous main character — that honor belongs to his older brother Tom, a fast-talking con artist and entrepreneur who is always has some scheme to make money. The books are collections of stand-alone stories, though narrative threads run through each book and the entire series to sort of tie them together. They take place at the turn of the last century in Utah (before Fitzgerald the author was actually born) and give readers an interesting glimpse into the era.
I cannot tell you how much I treasured these books as a child. They always made me laugh AND cry. When Tom wasn’t up to his usual shenanigans, he lent his scheming to better causes, like saving an immigrant boy from bullies or exposing crooked government agents so neighboring Native Americans can keep their land. It was brilliant of Fitzgerald to sometimes make Tom a hero before he swindles another lot of kids out of their hard earned nickels. I read these books to tatters, and when I learned the library was only missing one book — the seventh — I told the children’s librarian. She not only ordered the book for the library, she ordered an extra paperback copy for me to keep, a gesture that makes me tear up even now.
I set out to re-read the entire series in 1990s and got them all from the library. I soon faltered. The funny stories now irritated me — Tom wasn’t really smarter than other kids, just more willing to connive and cheat. He would hide behind technicalities to win bets, shamelessly take credit for victories that were shared with other kids. Maybe I knew that as a kid, but now it bugged me more, and I was annoyed with John for putting up with it and worshipping his older brother. Meanwhile, the more heroic stories felt heavy handed, sentimental and sometimes patronizing.
There are two ways that a children’s book can age badly. One is that it feels dated thirty years later, and the other is that the artifice of the author is too obvious to the adult reader. In that way, though still well-written (and brilliantly illustrated by Mercer Meyer), the books didn’t deliver the magic I remembered. I didn’t make it past the first book.
Now that almost another twenty years have passed since that experience, I went back yet again in the hopes that my mid-90s self was too grumpy and critical (which I’m sure people who’ve known me that long will second.) I started with the eighth book, a posthumous collection I’d never read. I suspect these stories were written at various times in the life of the series, considered by the author not quite up to snuff, and pulled together into a last volume by the family with some duct tape work to patch them together. And though in Fitzgerald’s polished prose, they do feel like ones he’d filed away — a couple are dull, a couple more test our willing suspension of disbelief, and one feels like a re-tread of an earlier story. I do quite like one where Tom foils a dogfighter, but overall these were previously unpublished for a reason. It wouldn’t be fair to re-appraise the series by these alone, though the conniving (even petty and vindictive) persona of Tom reminded me why I’d given up before, as well as a patronizing story where Tom helps save a Native American fellow who could have saved himself just as easily.
I decided to go to my favorite in the series, and the one I feel is the heart of the series, Me and My Little Brain. It has a lot to speak for it. First, Tom isn’t even in it — he’s away at school, and John finally gets to be the hero. Second, it is more of a novel, with an extended story about the Fitzgerald family adopting a troubled toddler who first raises hell and then becomes John’s worshipful shadow. Third, it has a lot of heart because of that relationship.
Here I found some of the magic I remembered. It has a classic middle grade arc of a main character trying and failing to be someone else, and learning who he really is. There are laugh out loud moments, sentimental ones, and a good deal more action than I remembered. There is one troubling scene–it troubled me as a kid–and a Dickension wont to melodrama, but by the last page I was tearing up, both because of John’s courage and because I felt the pangs of nostalgia for the first time I read it thirty-plus years ago.