The Great Brain by John D. Fitzgerald (J Historical Fiction)

The Great Brain (Great Brain #1) 

John D. Fitzgerald (J Historical Fiction)

It’s 1896 and the territory of Utah officially became a state. But to the 2,500 residents in the town of Adenville, it was the year of The Great Brain’s reformation. Having The Great Brain as a brother has its ups and downs. Just ask his little brother J.D. It was nearly impossible to catch any sunlight while constantly in the shadow of such magnificence and brilliance. Expert eavesdropping, a perilous cave rescue, and the great whiskey raid were the works of one Tom Dennis Fitzgerald and his intellect was the stuff of legend. But, has The Great Brain finally changed his scheming ways? Why, that would be bigger news than the day Adenville got its very first water closet!

Published in 1967, The Great Brain is the first in an eight-book series and loosely based on author John D. Fitzgerald’s own childhood experiences. The story is narrated by the Fitzgerald’s youngest son John (J.D.) who is seven—going on eight. This is one of those books that I have equally strong feelings of delight and horror. With a publisher-recommended reading age of 8 and up, it is important to note that this is a 1967 book and times they did change (and boy, did they ever)!

Setting aside the starting reading age (which I would emphatically suggest bumping up to at least 12), this book deals with some heavy societal and political issues largely centering around ethnic prejudice and hatred. Fitzgerald details how Adenville’s first Greek immigrant family (their son in particular) was the object of brutal bullying and verbal assault. The author also goes into a multi-page diatribe regarding the treatment of Jews compared to other ethnicities within their community and how a “beloved” member of their town somehow slipped through the cracks with devastating consequences. This wasn’t just a matter of negligence or ignorance, it was apathy and this entire topic—and its importance and relevance—is sadly bound to go right over a young reader’s scope of understanding.

Also, Tom is really nothing more than an opportunistic schemer. Would a young reader delight in his antics and ability to always find a way to one-up his friends? It seems so since this book not only gave way to seven successors, but earned Fitzgerald The Young Reader’s Choice Award for children’s literature in both 1976 and 1978. Shows what I know. Tom’s ability to do good does benefit those around him who learn how to defend themselves and develop a sense of self-worth, but the fact that he always seeks an “angle” puts him one step above a sleezy snake oil salesman. The upside is that Tom truly does have his beneficiaries’ best interests in mind and eventually experiences a moral awakening, but we know it doesn’t last long and future books probably contain more of the same self-serving behavior.   

Perhaps THE most disturbing part of this book comes near the end when John is helping another boy end his life because he wants to prove himself to be a good pal. The various ways the boys plot and attempt to carry out this horrific act is beyond boyish hijinx and madcap mayhem. I can’t possibly think what was going on in the author’s head that he thought this would be appropriate material to print for a child of eight. I was a child of the 70s and I wouldn’t look at this entire passage as merely being slapstick fun (Oopsies! THAT didn’t work. Let’s try this!) I shudder to think just HOW much of this book falls into the “own childhood experience” category.

My overall impression is that this book didn’t age well and should be left for a much older and morally mature reader. And even though my brain is not-so-great, I know there are more appropriate books out there for young readers that teach the virtues of friendship, the value of community, the strength of family, and the satisfaction you get from doing good with the expectation of receiving absolutely nothing in return.

Rating: 3/5

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The Borrowers Avenged (The Borrowers #5) by Mary Norton

The Borrowers Avenged (The Borrowers #5) 

Mary Norton (Juvenile Fantasy)

In shock over the loss of their trio of moneymakers, the Platters plan to stake out Little Fordham to recapture the little people who have inexplicably escaped their attic prison. Meanwhile, Miss Menzies is distraught at the sudden absence of her friend Arrietty and the family that she’s come to love. Knowing that no good deed goes unpunished, Pod understands the immediacy of getting his family as far away from Little Fordham as possible before those nasty Platters return because luck and ingenuity will not save them next time. With the discovery of a permanent home—along with a new borrower—it seems that things are finally as they should be for our favorite little family, but their safety may once again be at risk when the Platters learn that a credible “finder” is in their midst and with the help of a bit of clothing left behind by Homily, could the Clock’s days of freedom be coming to an end?

Written twenty-one years after her fourth book in The Borrowers series, The Borrowers Avenged fails to live up to the expectations set by its predecessors and is the weakest and most disappointing of Norton’s five-book series. I entered with high hopes and was not disappointed as the beginning indicated that Norton hadn’t missed a day when she picked up the story of our beloved Clock family. However, with its overly descriptive text (the story loses valuable momentum quite a few times throughout the book), the introduction of three other-worldly characters who added no value and served no purpose to the overall story, and an ending that is perhaps the bleakest and darkest I have ever read in a children’s book, it seems that Norton was writing more to her original fans (who had aged 20+ years since her last installment putting them in their early 30s) rather than to the book’s intended audience of readers aged eight to twelve. Norton even goes so far as to introduce the topic of suicide in her book, which goes beyond the pale. I’m not sure why Norton waited so long to conclude her series (which was really unnecessary), but after reading this book, not only did her characters deserve better, but her fans did as well.

There were some bright spots in this last book: the reunion with the Hendrearys; the rekindled relationship between Arrietty and her young cousin Timmus; and the introduction of Peagreen Overmantle who forces Homily to again rethink her past prejudices and appreciate that trustworthy and dependable allies come from the unlikeliest of places. Despite these, The Borrowers Avenged lacks the magic, wonder, and youthful spirit that we’ve come to expect in the series and should serve as a reminder that sometimes revenge isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Rating: 3/5

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