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:

We’re now posting videos of some of our book reviews! Follow us on Facebook at or on Instagram @tdjreviews and join in on the fun!

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir by Tobias Wolff

This Boy’s Life: A Memoir

Tobias Wolff (Adult Memoir)

It was 1955 and we were driving from Florida to Utah, to get away from a man my mother was afraid of and to get rich on uranium. We were going to change our luck.

Ten-year-old Toby “Jack” Wolff dreams of escape and freedom. He dreams of transformation. Traveling with his mother from Florida to Utah in their Nash Rambler, their prospects finally seem bright and expansive. The future was theirs for the taking…that is if their luck changed which, in Toby’s case, seems highly unlikely.

Tobias Wolff’s memoir is not one of those redemptive stories where everyone links arms and watches the sunset over the mountain or one where friends and family cheer as our young hero makes his way across the stage, grabs his diploma, and raises it high into the air signaling triumph. This is another kind of story where the reader bangs their head against the wall as our young protagonist continues to make one horribly bad decision after another. Where the hero doesn’t learn from his mistakes and continually seems to disappoint everyone around him except himself. This horribly flawed and painfully real boy is the reason why I fell in love with this book.

Former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden once said that the true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one’s watching. A lot of what Wolff includes in his memoir could certainly have been softened or even omitted in order to allow the reader to have just a small bit of sympathy for him and his circumstances. Instead, he goes full bore and gives us all the ugly, raw, and sordid details of his early years. He deprives us of feeling any sense of pity although we understand that he is but a product of a mother who continues to be drawn to poisonous men and friends that are a whisper away from juvenile detention.

Throughout this book, Wolff explains that he craved distinction, that he only wanted what he couldn’t have, and that he was merely living off of an idea that he had of himself. Although we understand and accept this, we still ache when he tries to please a parent who neither deserves or earns it and hold our breath and silently curse as we realize yet again that another opportunity has been squandered away. Through all of his pain and suffering, Wolff reminds us that life is messy. It’s gnarled. It’s complicated. Life sometimes is just like that…especially this boy’s life.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to