I posted recently about my love for The Great Brain books as a kid and my disappointment on re-reading them years later. I went back yet again — another fifteen years have passed since that unhappy reunion — in the hopes that they weren’t as bad as I thought. I started with Book 3 because it was my favorite, and my review is in that earlier post.
Now for the first two (The Great Brain and More Adventures of the Great Brain). First of all, in case I haven’t made it clear, none of my concerns are really for the quality of the books. They are brilliantly written and illustrated. Fitzgerald can tell a story like nobody’s business, mixes historical detail so deftly you never feel like you’re being taught a lesson, and his characterizations could be used to teach a class. And of course he is a first rate humorist, and Tom one of the great comic characters in children’s literature (he is almost as good as the First Tom in that category). There are some great stories here. I laughed, I teared up. For people with fond memories of the series, you are not mistaken. They are good.
My disappointments came from those aspects of the book that felt, to an adult, to be heavy handed — every book has a few poignant moments — and aspects of the books that don’t stand well even with the understanding that they were historical to begin with. Those moments still make me wince. Tom shaming his little brother after the death of a family friend is particularly ugly, because it serves no purpose. A funeral for a dog is well-meaning but ventures into bathos. If it’s on purpose, it’s a patronizing kind of humor out of step with the spirit of the books; if sincere, it is another wincer. As for dated, the gender roles of the turn of the century seem more than depicted for historical accuracy, but savagely endorsed by the author. Boys have to fight. Girls are meant to be pretty. Those are not paraphrases; they are explicit morals of stories in books 1 and 2.
My reaction isn’t as severe as it was fifteen years ago. It wasn’t that I couldn’t read a book then with historical prejudice, it’s just that I went back to them with such an idealized memory that I was startled to find flaws at all. Also, the story that bothered me most still hasn’t appeared — it must be in one of the later books, which I’m sure get less inspired in every way.
For the good: some very well plotted, clever stories — one has Tom saving two boys for what turns out to be mercenary reasons; his heroism is ingenious and rousing, the comic twist at the end perfect. Though a story about reforming a tomboy is most loathsome for smug chauvinism, it also has one of the series’ best turns, as Tom finds just the right book to get her interested in reading. And a darkly comic story about a boy attempting and failing in suicide (try to publish THAT for middle grade readers now) turns into a great story where Tom’s famous great brain is shown working through a real-world problem and finding a believable solution. As a “process” story, it is one I’d recommend to kids everywhere.
One of the first American kid lit bestsellers was Horatio Alger, a writer of many limitations who nevertheless touched a nerve with over a hundred books about kids hustling for money that sold like crazy for several decades. But at some point money became kind of a taboo topic among kids — we don’t much talk about incomes and costs of things, and few books deal matter-of-factly with money. There are a few books (I think The Lemonade Wars is one, but I haven’t read it), but no banner series in American kid lit about the fundamental American dream of turning a profit. For that reason, I think The Great Brain is still a stand-out series, as American as any there ever was, and any problems I find with it are distinctly American problems. Nothing has taken its place.