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

* Book cover image attributed to:

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Author: The Dusty Jacket

We review older books for ages 7 and up in a wide range of genres. We take great pride and joy in bringing back old titles so that you can make new memories because anytime is a good time to dust off a new favorite. Keep reading and follow us on Instagram @tdjreviews

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