The Great Brain

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The Great Brain is a series of children's books by American author John Dennis Fitzgerald (1906–1988). Set in the small town of Adenville, Utah, between 1896 and 1898, the stories are loosely based on Fitzgerald's childhood experiences. Although John D. Fitzgerald was born in Price, Utah, several references in the stories suggest Adenville is located in Utah's "Dixie" in the southwestern corner of the state, near St. George. The town was indeed a village located west of Cedar City about which little is known. The town is mentioned by Dr. Stephen L. Carr in his book, The Historical Guide to Utah Ghost Towns, published 2009 by Western Epics.

Chronicled by the first-person voice of John Dennis Fitzgerald, the stories mainly center on the escapades of John's mischievous older brother, Tom Dennis Fitzgerald, a.k.a. "The Great Brain." The Great Brain was made into a movie released in 1978, with the main character played by Jimmy Osmond.[1]

Mercer Mayer originally illustrated the books except for 1995's The Great Brain Is Back (which was illustrated by Diane deGroat). Mr. Mayer did the original cover illustrations for the first seven books as well, but Carl Cassler re-did the cover illustrations for some of the re-prints of the first seven books.

Publication history[edit]

The Publisher's Note in The Great Brain Is Back, published after the death of the author, recounts the story of the series' original publication. Fitzgerald had published the best-selling Papa Married a Mormon and its sequel, Mama's Boarding House, in 1955 and 1958 respectively. Those books were set in Adenville, Utah, at the end of the 19th century. A third book was requested by the editor, E.L. Doctorow, but he changed jobs before the manuscript was completed. Fitzgerald submitted the new novel, which focused on the children of Adenville, to Doctorow at The Dial Press but by then family stories were out of favor with adult readers. The new editor for children's books offered to publish the novel if it were cut in half and eliminated some passages aimed at adults. The result was The Great Brain.

Series titles[edit]

Titles in order of chronological continuity include:

  1. The Great Brain (1967)
  2. More Adventures of the Great Brain (1969)
  3. Me and My Little Brain (1971)
  4. The Great Brain At The Academy (1972)
  5. The Great Brain Reforms (1973)
  6. The Return of the Great Brain (1974)
  7. The Great Brain Does It Again (1976)
  8. The Great Brain Is Back (Published in 1995 from loose notes after the author's death)

Main characters[edit]

Fitzgerald family[edit]

The Fitzgerald family members include:

  • John Dennis Fitzgerald (J.D.) - the narrator of the series, and youngest of the three brothers before the adoption of Frankie Pennyworth.
  • Tom Dennis Fitzgerald Junior (T.D.) - the mischievous middle brother and swindler extraordinaire. His nickname is "The Great Brain", and his escapades form the basis for the series. Throughout the series, Tom demonstrates that he possesses great intelligence and a money-loving heart, but at times, he also demonstrates great humanity and generosity.
  • Sweyn Dennis Fitzgerald (S.D.) - the eldest brother; eventually departs for Pennsylvania to live with relatives so that he can attend high school.
  • Frankie Pennyworth - a boy who is adopted by the Fitzgerald family after the loss of his own family in a landslide. When he first arrives, he has a mental block stemming from this trauma, in which he lashes out violently at the Fitzgeralds. John reflects that his name should be "Frankenstein Dollar worth", because, he says, Frankie is "a monster and a dollar's worth of trouble", and a battle of wills ensues when John is promised a large sum of money to try to tame Frankie, but only if his parents do not need to take Frankie to a doctor in Salt Lake City.
  • Thomas Dennis Fitzgerald Senior ("Papa" or "Fitz") - patriarch of the family. Owner, editor, and publisher of the town paper, the "Adenville Weekly Advocate". He is an Irish Catholic originally from the Eastern United States who headed west to seek his fortune as a newspaper writer and publisher. He is one of Adenville's leading citizens, and highly respected amongst the residents as he is the only citizen of Adenville to hold a university diploma.
  • Tena ("Mama") Fitzgerald - The matriarch of the family and homemaker, of Danish-Scandinavian ancestry.
  • Aunt Bertha - A Protestant widow who works as the family's maid, not actually a blood relative but still called "aunt" because she has been considered a part of their family.
  • Uncle Mark - the town marshal, who is the uncle of John and the one who discovered the landslide that killed the Pennyworth family and rescued an unconscious Frankie.
  • Aunt Cathie - Mark's wife, who appears only briefly when she and Mark consider adopting Frankie due to the fact they are childless on account of an earlier miscarriage. Ultimately she and Mark adopt two orphans, boy and girl.

All the Fitzgerald men have the middle name of Dennis, a reminder of the "Fitzgerald Curse," put upon the family because an ancestor named Dennis helped the British during the Revolutionary War. His father decreed that all male Fitzgeralds should have Dennis as their middle name to remind them of his son's loyalty to the Crown.

In reality, the author had an older sister, Belle Fitzgerald Empey.[2] In addition, his brother "Sweyn" doesn't have that name; the real John's two elder brothers were named William and Tom, and he had two younger brothers, Gerald and Charles.[3]

  • Andy Anderson, a boy who loses his left leg to infection after receiving a cut from falling from a rope swing in an abandoned barn; he receives assistance from Tom, for a price.
  • Parley Benson, son of a bounty hunter and the envy of most of the other boys. He possesses his own coonskin cap, a Bowie knife, and his own repeating air rifle. Tom wins Parley's air rifle in a bet about whether Tom can magnetize wood. After reading about boomerangs in an encyclopedia and seeing an illustration of one in a dictionary, Tom fashions a boomerang from a stick, and after throwing it, holds up a magnet to make it appear the magnet is bringing it back. Losing his air rifle earns Parley the "worst whipping of his life" from his father.
  • Dotty Blake, also known as "Britches Dottie," a "tomboy" whom Tom teaches to read and write, and who is given dresses and taught to act like a conventional girl by Tom's mother. Dottie beats up Sammy Leeds when he teases her.
  • Danny Forester, son of the town's barber. Danny's left eye always seems half-shut, except when he gets excited.
  • Jimmy Gruber, a diabetic boy who dies in childhood, after his father steals Frankie's rocking horse (named 'Bullet') as a present before Jimmy dies.
  • Eddie Huddle, Frankie's best friend and son of the town blacksmith.
  • Frank and Allan Jensen, who in the first book of the series disappear into Skeleton Cave, along with their dog Lady. Tom rescues them using his 'great brain'.
  • Howard Kay, one of John's best friends, who has "a round face like a pumpkin". In the first book, John, wanting to get the mumps before Tom and Sweyn and expose them, sneaks into Howard's bedroom when he is quarantined with mumps and begs him to breathe on him, which Howard eventually does reluctantly. Later, Howard was reluctant to ride on Tom's raft Explorer when the river had turned muddy, which was a sign of a looming flood. However, Tom pressured Howard by calling him "yellow bellied" if he backed out (and thus lose the five-cent admission). The subsequent flooding becomes a disastrous ride, nearly killing Howard, which causes John to faint from shock.
  • Basil Kokovinis, a Greek boy who recently immigrated to America. Upon his arrival in Adenville he has difficulty assimilating, until Tom takes the initiative to show Basil the ropes of being a bona fide American kid. He was originally named Vasillos, until his father Anglicized his name to Basil, being the English equivalent.
  • Sammy Leeds, who is something of a bully. His father is extremely bigoted and incites him to harass Basil, a newly arrived Greek immigrant, but is given his comeuppance when Tom encourages a lumberjack-style fight and Basil bests Sammy in wrestling, which the Greeks have excelled at.
  • Jimmy Peterson, another of John's best friends, whose mother owns the local boarding house and buys clothes that are too big for him because he doesn't have any brothers who could use the clothes as hand-me-downs. He is almost killed along with his friends Howard Kay and Tom on Tom's river raft the "Explorer" when a flood strikes. This incites anger in John as Tom put his friends' lives in danger for a fast buck.
  • Polly Reagan, who becomes Tom's girlfriend when he turns 13. She and Tom are co-winners of the town spelling bee.
  • Seth Smith, a local Mormon boy close to Tom's age, but friends with John as he is too young to be included with the bigger kids. Seth's father owns the empty lot on which the children frequently play baseball and scrub football. John was given a pig by him in exchange for a sought-after toy, only for John's mother to screech she will not have any pig breeding on the Fitzgerald land.
  • Herbie Sties, a fat poet whom Tom sets out to reform out of his eating habits.
  • Harold Vickers, son of the district attorney. Harold is 16 making him older than the other kids. He knows a great deal about the law and plans to become a lawyer when he is older. He is chosen by John to act as the judge at a trial for Tom set in the Fitzgerald barn. During the trial, Tom is charged with being a confidence man, swindler, and a crook by all of the kids in Adenville who were victims of Tom and his Great Brain, in hopes that Tom will reform and change his ways.
  • Marie Vinson, daughter of the Vinsons, a prominent family in Adenville. Sweyn is sweet on Marie, much to John and Tom's chagrin. John refers to her as "that stuck-up Marie Vinson". Sweyn later returns home from high school wearing fancy Eastern clothing which he shows off to Marie, causing further mortification for John and Tom.

Religious demographics[edit]

Catholicism is central to the family's life and identity, a recurring theme in a town where Catholics are distinctly in the minority. The breakdown is said to be 2,000 Mormons, 500 or so Protestants, and only about 100 Catholics. All the non-Mormons or "Gentiles" attend a generalized community church, and the Fitzgeralds have to make do with the services of itinerant priests and of the local preacher, Reverend Holcomb, who preaches "strictly from the Bible" so he does not show favoritism to either Protestants or Catholics. It was said that once a year a Catholic priest would visit Adenville to hear confessions, baptize babies or do specifically Catholic rituals; other times a Protestant minister would do likewise, such as marry Protestants.

The Jewish population is almost nonexistent, consisting solely of an aging itinerant Jewish peddler named Abie Glassman who sets up a shop in Adenville with tragic results, as chronicled in the first book in the series, The Great Brain. Abie dies of starvation because his small shop cannot compete with the ZCMI store. Papa explains to the townspeople that it was because Abie was a Jew that no one recognized or helped him with his situation. With Abie's death, it can be inferred that the town no longer has any Jewish people living in it. It is also not known if Basil Kokovinis and his family are Greek Orthodox.


  • Papa, who had migrated from the northeastern United States, is the only person in town with a college education. Papa also bemoans the fact that most boys in Adenville will be limited as careers often have a prerequisite of an eighth grade education, which Adenville lacked in the beginning, and helped expand elementary education to solve this problem.
  • Adenville contains a one-room schoolhouse with a single teacher who teaches the first through sixth grades.
  • Papa sends Tom and Sweyn to a Catholic boarding academy in Salt Lake City that serves ten boys in the seventh grade and ten boys in the eighth grade.
  • Later, as part of Thomas' initiative to expand lower education, a junior high known as the Adenville Academy is commission. Tom attends eighth grade there.
  • In the series Sweyn attends high school in Boylestown, Pennsylvania, where Papa had earned his high school diploma. Sweyn lives with distant relatives of Papa's in Pennsylvania, and one chapter concerns his return to Adenville taking up "dude" ways of the East Coast.

Historical context[edit]

Fitzgerald's books describe many issues regarding society and life in the context of the late 19th century, between 1896 and 1898 in the southwestern United States. Among the topics covered are the following:

  • The small-town culture of long ago
  • Diabetes as a fatal disease (before insulin)
  • The banking system in the days before the Federal Reserve,
  • Racism, intolerance, and indifference.
    • Although blacks do not appear, the issue of nativism arises when some of the kids torment the son of a Greek immigrant.
    • Native Americans and their lives on reservations
    • The second-class status of Jews
  • Mormonism and Catholicism
  • Modes of transportation, such as walking, riding horses, bicycling, and (for longer journeys) trains.
  • Sewage and sanitation. Outhouses (referred to as "backhouses" in Utah at that time, due to the term "outhouse" being used in that region to refer to a storage shed, workshed, or other small out-building behind the main house) are not only the norm, they are a mark of social status. When Papa orders a flush toilet (called a "water closet") from Sears Roebuck and has a cesspool built, the whole town at first thinks it is an unwise placement of a backhouse indoors, until they see it work and then become fascinated.
  • Child discipline. Most families gave their children "whippings." In The Great Brain Reforms, Parley Benson says that his pa "horsewhipped" him for letting Tom cheat him out of his repeating air rifle. The better-educated, more progressive Fitzgeralds are a notable exception with their use of the silent treatment. This means that Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald will not talk to or acknowledge those who are punished. It often lasted from a range of one day to one week depending on the infraction, but could be longer. One chapter dealt with Frankie misbehaving and being punished by the silent treatment, and given his young age and unfamiliarity with such a punishment, reacts inappropriately. J.D. frequently describes the silent treatment as worse than a whipping because of the emotional impact of being ignored by his parents, and at times says that he wishes his parents would just give them a whipping and get it over with. One chapter dealt with Frankie being subject to the silent treatment and misconstruing it as being disinherited from the Fitzgeralds, causing him to run away from home.In later books as Tom and J.D. age, Papa admits the silent treatment is becoming outmoded, and now resorts to extra chores or revocation of allowances as punishments.
  • Non-conformity. Tom and John's fear that they will be seen as cowards, sissies, or welchers by the other boys of the town is a driving factor in more than a few of the stories.
  • Leisure time amusements and activities in the days before radio and television.
  • Crime. This includes episodes such as the outlaw Cal Roberts escaping from prison and holding Frankie hostage, a bank robbery, a cattle buyer being robbed and murdered on a train, and the citizens of Adenville being defrauded by con men claiming to represent "Alkali Products, Inc." Tom becomes involved in solving these crimes because of the Fitzgerald boys' relationship with their Uncle Mark, the town marshal. In The Great Brain is Back, Tom also helps prove the innocence of three Native Americans framed for theft, breaks up a dogfighting ring, and escapes kidnappers.
  • There is an anachronism in the series about Cracker Jack. In The Return of the Great Brain, Tom concocts a swindle using a "wheel of fortune," like a roulette wheel, where players win prizes depending on the number on which the wheel stops spinning. Half of the numbers win two boxes of Cracker Jack, with, as Tom says, "the usual prize in each box." However, prizes did not appear in Cracker Jack until 1912; the Great Brain series is set in the late 19th century.
  • There are some chapters in the series involving the paranormal, although the events can be explained naturally.
    • In The Great Brain, Tom involves his friends in a plan to frame the new schoolteacher for being a drunk, and makes them swear an oath not to tell on the skull of a purported dead Indian chief, calling upon the chief's ghost to "come back to earth and cut out the tongue of anybody who tells."
    • In More Adventures of the Great Brain, the people of Adenville, including Papa and Uncle Mark, believe that a prehistoric animal is on the loose due to "monster tracks" leading from Skeleton Cave to the river and back. In reality, Tom has created those tracks to scare Parley Benson away from the cave and win a bet.
    • Later in the same book, Tom, John, Sweyn, and several of their friends encounter a ghost in the abandoned mining town of Silverlode; the "ghost" is really the uncle of one of their friends dressed in a sheet, for the purpose of scaring them away from the very real physical dangers of that place.
    • In Me and My Little Brain, John scares Frankie with a story about a ghost that preys on little boys sleeping alone in response to Frankie's attempts to steal his bed.
    • In The Great Brain at the Academy, Tom and his friend Jerry win a bet by making it appear that Jerry can read minds.
    • In The Great Brain Does It Again, Tom has Herbie Sties, the "greedy gut", take a "sacred oath" on the Bible to "stop eating ice cream and candy and more than one dessert a day", declaring that "if I break my sacred vow, my soul will belong to the Devil and I'll burn in everlasting Hell". When Herbie still does not lose even one pound, Tom and John investigate and secretly observe him consuming a bag-load of candy. Rather than denounce him on the spot, Tom has John dress up in a devil costume and knock on Herbie's window as he is getting ready for bed. Herbie believes for five days that a devil really has come to claim his soul, although the trick is eventually revealed.

Popular Culture[edit]

Lou Solverson reads The Great Brain to his daughter in two episodes of season 2 of the TV series Fargo.


External links[edit]