If I Only Had a Brain

The Great Brain
John D. Fitzgerald

By the time I was thirty, I was certain I’d never raise children. By the time I finally started, my high school classmates were busy prepping their oldest kids for SATs and campus visits. Now, they’re retiring and I’ll be looking at tuition payments well into my eighth decade.

All of which helps color my perspective. That’s most apparent when I draw on memories of my own childhood. I’m well past the age where, finding myself reprising my own parent’s behavior, I cringe. But I am at the age where I press things on my kids that were important to me and which I think would benefit them.

The three of us rarely agree I’ve made a wise choice.

All of which brings me to the present book, a super dud as far as the AHC kids are concerned. That puzzles me, because this was a huge book for me at about age nine, so much so that I read the entire series the way I later attacked the entire corpus of certain writers. How could they miss the greatness?

If Salt Lake City looked like this in the mid-1880s, a small town could have by 1896.
Photo courtesy The Salt Lake Tribune

Maybe they have a point. Truth is, while I’m still entertained by the tales told in this book, the author is no great stylist. That’s not because it’s a kid’s book, either. Pick up any of E.B. White‘s books for children and the same writer who beguiles from the pages of The New Yorker and as Thurber‘s co-author is plainly visible. Fitzgerald knows how to tell a story, but the manner in which he does it isn’t going to stick with you.

Still, the Great Brain is quite a character. I  get a strong sense the source material was familial. For example, our narrator shares a common middle name with both his brothers (and the author). If I hadn’t cottoned to that I’d have thought he was made up to be a turn-of-the-20th-century Tom Sawyer.  What’s different is the author’s attitude toward thinking. Tom regularly repairs to the loft in the barn to puzzle things out, a practice which our narrator, J.D., seems both impressed by and fearful of. Tom is always “going sixty” according to J.D.

That doesn’t really describe the American everyman, who gets ahead by his sharp wits and solid common sense. The almost perfect example of that is Tom Sawyer’s whitewashed fence. Every kid hates chores. It’s the American genius to convince others they’re a treat worth paying to do.

Though this house is in California, it matches the Great Brain’s house as I imagined it.

I grew up amid lots of Toms, Johns and Michaels, so Tom and J.D. seemed like kids I knew, though their older brother, Sweyn, with his idiosyncratically spelled Scandanavian moniker, stood out. What I really responded to at age nine, though, was how Tom kept putting one past adults. At the time, I bet I thought that was pretty neat. As a parent, I realize the books serve a didactic purpose. Sure,  Tom is clever, and always able to turn a situation to his own advantage, but there’s always an adult turning things around.

The book is a loosely collected series of stories all set in the small town of Adenville, Utah, located in the warmer, southwest corner of the state, in the year the territory joined the Union, 1896. That’s not what’s most memorable about that year, we’re told at the outset. No, that’s the year the narrator’s family gets the first flush toilet in town and Tom finds some humility. But not without strutting his stuff first.

I’ve often noted when things in books are noticeably modern. One of the delights of this book is you see modernity emerging. There are no cars, but there’s regular rail service and telephones, the New York World arrives weekly, the kids play the games I played 60 to 70 years later and, obviously, the outhouse was about to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The depot in Adenville probably looked like this. Bountiful, UT circa 1895

What better place for a quick thinker to turn a profit? Tom quickly concocts a scheme where neighborhood kids–probably every kid in town, it’s a small rural community where everyone knows everyone–pay him to use the new plumbing. His mother–she’s the observant one; Dad is editor of the local paper and tends to have his head in the clouds–catches on and ends the scheme, forcing Tom to refund the admissions.

Most of the tales work like that. There’s one where Tom is seemingly the hero without an element of self-dealing but that comes back, in the final chapter, to be untrue. I find Tom curious because he always knows exactly what he’s up to and can rationalize it to death. His protestations as to why he’s actually noble are never believable, but they are ever-present.

He does, despite himself, do some good. There is, for one, the tale of Basil, the son of the local diner owner who, with his mother, arrives from Greece to reunite the family. Tom helps Basil navigate the world of kids and teaches him to be a red-blooded American–but at a price.

Tom and J.D.’s dad edited the local paper, presumably more established than this.

He’s also the only person in town who really connected with the formerly itinerant peddler, Abie Glassman. Persuaded by the boys’ father to settle down after a life on the road, Abie’s store ultimately fails and he starves to death. The townspeople, secure in their deeply believed stereotypes, believe Abie is actually sitting om a fortune and so no one checks up on him until it’s too late. Only Tom knew the man’s parlous state.

Tom is a little too in love with money if you ask me, but he’s mostly harmless. What I still see, at this late date, is the thing that first appealed to me. Tom, J.D. and family are an Irish Catholic clan in a town that’s two-thirds Mormon. The idea that there was such a thing as a rural Catholics, let alone ones that also belonged to the wrong, non-dominant group, was new to me then.

That idea that I wasn’t alone and in a unique situation set me on my pathway. I learned to better apprehend the bigger world through books. Having one’s horizons expanded is a journey. It has to start somewhere, even if those first faltering steps rest on new but familiar terrain.

And for this quasi-urban kid growing up hard by the New York City border, rural Utah offered the perfect place for one of my first steps on the road.






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