Title: The Great BrainThe Great Brain #1
Author: John D. Fitzgerald
Illustrator: Mercer Mayer
Pages: 175
Recommended Ages: 10 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★★

Move out the way, Encyclopedia Brown – here comes The Great Brain!

The Story.

I don’t know how my older brother does it. His name’s Tom D. Fitzgerald, but everyone calls him the Great Brain. Their calling him that isn’t what gets to me – it’s him having it. Somehow, he’s got a scheme for every situation – a way to solve a problem and get himself rich in the process. Why there was the time he charged kids one cent each to catch a glimpse of our new water closet (which we all thought was crazy but, hey, if it makes money, great!). Or the time he taught Andy, who lost his leg, how to walk again (by making him do all our chores). The funny thing is, even when he’s fleecing people, they seem to think he’s helping them. I’ll never understand it…

But I can’t help but admire it.

Discussion.

Truth is, despite the fact that The Great Brain is a conniving little egomaniac of sorts, I admired him too. Okay, so egomaniac is taking things a bit far – but I was reminded of that word yesterday and have been dying to use it ever since.

Self-interested philanthropist would probably be a better way to put it. The Great Brain is interested in helping other people to a certain extent – but he’s even more interested in helping himself. And while he cons people, he actually does help them with his con. Maybe he comes out the better for it, but the other person has what he wanted, too.

I mentioned Encyclopedia Brown at the beginning of my review. Let me just say – The Great Brain has Encyclopedia way trumped, both as a character and as a series. As a character, The Great Brain has a finesse and a knowledge of human nature that Encyclopedia lacks. As a series, John D. Fitzgerald poured WAY more characterization in his books than Donald J. Sobol has ever done with his.

The Encylopedia series feels like filler material. The Great Brain doesn’t. He feels almost like a child’s version of Sherlock Holmes – only without the London scenery. The stories are set during the 1890s, which instantly gives them more of an atmosphere, but they also flow together more smoothly so that – by the end of the story – we aren’t quite sure whether we just finished up a novel or a series of short stories. They are episodic, but they also gel. They’re fantastic, really.

Also, the humor is leaps and bounds better. Instead of consisting of horribly cheesy puns, the humor has a deadpan, understated quality about it, which makes it all the more uproarious.

Tom does have a tendency to twist facts to suit his purpose. He also misuses his friends occasionally. But whenever there is a question of them being mistrated by somebody else, he flies to the rescue. By the end of the story, he has even developed to the point where he doesn’t enforce his end of the bargain and allows a friend to have his services for free. In the closing paragraph, John writes,

“Things got mighty dull after The Great Brain decided to give up his crooked ways and to walk the straight and narrow. So dull Papa didn’t even bother to come upstairs and see if Tom was in bed the night the schoolhouse burned down. So dull there is no more to tell.” [pg. 175]

However, as there is a continuing series, one can only hope that Tom’s reformation did not entirely eliminate his adventurous side. ; )

In the last story, Andy has lost his leg and decides that the world and his friends would be better off without him. John decides that he “[can’t] turn down a friend in need” and the two of them plot numerous dramatic ways that Andy could kill himself. They actually try a couple of ways but are interrupted by Tom who sees a way to prolong Andy’s life and make a little something for himself on the side. A few of the suggestions are violent, but on the whole the situation is very comical. I’ll give an example…

“We went into the barn. I got a big gunnysack that was empty. It was the kind oats came in to feed to our team of horses and Sweyn’s mustang, Dusty. It was plenty big enough for drowning Andy. Then I got some twine. We started out for the river. Andy was very happy and cheerful at the prospect of doing himself in. It made me feel good knowing I was helping to make him happy and cheerful.

When we arrifed at the swimming hole, Andy took off his peg leg and stripped down to his underwear.

“Maybe my folks will have another son someday who can wear my clothes,” he said as his body began shivering from the cold wind blowing off the mountains. “See that they get them. I’m giving my peg leg to you, John.”
_
“What will I do with it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just thought you might like it to sort of remember me.”

“That would be nice,” I had to admit.

I helped Andy get into the gunnysack. I closed the top of it and tied it with twine. Then I rolled him in the gunnysack to the riverbank. I located his head in the sack and patted it.

“We are at the diving board,” I told him. “I’m going to roll you up the diving board now. You can sort of help by turning as I push you.”

I was afraid Andy would fall off the diving board before we reached the end of it, but he didn’t. Again I patted him on the head.

“One more push and you are a goner,” I said. “Are you ready, old pal?”

“Tell my folks I did it because I’m plumb useless.” Andy’s voice came out of the gunnysack. “And I sure appreciate you helping me to do myself in. You are a real pal, John. I’m ready.”
_
“Goodbye, old pal,” I said, feeling very sad as I rolled Andy off the end of the diving board.

The gunnysack with Andy in it hit the water. I was expecting to see a few air bubbles after the big splash as Andy went to his death. Instead the water began to church and to my astonishment Andy’s head popped out of it. He began swimming toward the river bank as the gunnysack floated down the river. I ran to meet him.

“Gee whizz, John,” he said with his teeth chattering from the cold water, “couldn’t you tie a knot that would hold? The sack busted right open when I hit the water.”

I was a little nettled by his attitude. I thought I’d tied a good knot. “You could have pretended the sack didn’t open and let yourself drown,” I pointed out to him.

“Even a fool knows when you know how to swim you can’t let yourself drown,” he said as if completely disgusted with me.

“I’ll run back to the barn and get another sack and some baling wire,” I said. “I’ll tie you in with baling wire so you’ll never get out.”

“It is too darn cold,” Andy said as he started to dress with his clothes sticking to his wet body. “Let’s figure out a better way.” [pgs. 151-152]

As you can see, although it is a serious topic, the boys are treating it with the same degree and type of interest as if it were the newest game.

There are several references to the Mormons who live in the area, but the only outright religious reference is when Mamma crosses herself. Tom does demand that several children swear an oath of secrecy on the skull of a dead Indian, and threatens the children that if they break their oath, the Indians’ ghost will come back and cut out their tongue. In the end, the secret is told and Tom assures John that there is actually no such thing as a ghost.

The boys often one up each other, but at the root of their relationship is an unseverable bond. Also, although the parents are often exasperated with the antics of their children, they do love them. I was a bit disturbed to hear how the parents punish their children – rather than spanking them, they do something “ten times worse” and give them the silent treatment. So if a kid misbehaves, they are treated as though they didn’t exist until they are reinstated to favor. :/

‘Gosh’ is used nine times, ‘heck’, ‘darn’, and ‘gee’ twice each.

Conclusion. If you’re okay with the above cautions, I think it likely that your kids will enjoy this series. However, don’t just limit it to the kids – they’re fun for us adults, too. :)

Review © 2014 Laura Verret

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