Always wondered if Tom went on to work in banking.
October 10, 2012 7:10 PM   Subscribe

John D. Fitzgerald had written three fictionalized memoirs of his family's life in the late 19th-century Utah west before the night he happened to regale a group of friends with childhood stories of his money-crazed brother, Tom. At their urging, he crafted a funny and clever series of children's books chronicling the adventures of The Great Brain. Like countless other readers, the blogger and researcher behind Finding Fitzgerald (and its companion blog and Facebook page) has been fascinated with discovering the real settings and stories behind the books. And the truly committed can even watch Jimmy Osmond in the 1978 film adaptation.
posted by Miko (40 comments total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Oh wow, I loved those books but had completely forgotten about them. Thanks for posting!
posted by lunasol at 7:14 PM on October 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

My favorite books as a kid. Thanks, looking forward to digging in.
posted by Bookhouse at 7:14 PM on October 10, 2012

I re-read those books dozens of times when I was young and now I read them to my own kids.
posted by jeffen at 7:29 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Holy cow I loved these books. Thanks for this post!
posted by tzikeh at 7:29 PM on October 10, 2012

Hold the phone, I'm having a memory! I think I saw that adaptation. All I remember is the main character running home excitedly shouting "I got the mumps!" Cut to the next scene where he's in bed, miserable and moaning, "I got the mumps."
posted by Pistache at 7:32 PM on October 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

Wow, I have such fond memories of those books. Something about the atmosphere, the intense sense that the characters as Catholics were outsiders in this dense Mormon community was really captivating. The water closet, leapfrog, the mother's cake that all the Mormons loved for the touch of alcohol in it, I think really the little details of that life were what made them rich books. It's been a long time but I particularly remember liking the one set in the boarding school.
posted by graymouser at 7:49 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Thanks Miko — another fan here, I loved the Great Brain books as a kid, read them almost as many times as The Hobbit and the Narnia books, and have shared them with my own kids. They're great as stories and they capture all sorts of details of daily life in a different time and place.
posted by namasaya at 7:50 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I loved these books so much as a kid.

Years later I looked back and said to myself "Huh, you know, despite the fact that those were first person narratives, I'm starting to suspect that they were fiction." I think I was in college when this occurred to me.
posted by Shutter at 7:50 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man I loved these books so much. Thank you for this post.

There was one story about a kid with a peg leg, his dad told him he was "plum useless" and Tom taught him what he was really capable of. It really changed my views towards disabled people.

I bought a couple of them for my son a while back but they didn't take. I should just re-read them myself and see if I can get him interested in them.
posted by bondcliff at 7:54 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yet another Great Brain fan (and the Mercer Mayer illustrations, too)... for some reason I have especially vivid memories of the one where T.D. went to Catholic school in Salt Lake City. The mean head priest with eyes like coal! The stash of candy bars under the statue of St. Francis! The indentation you get in your thumb from peeling potatoes!
posted by scody at 7:59 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Oh man, The Great Brain! I loved those books so much as a kid. I should reread them and see if they're still awesome.
posted by Pope Guilty at 8:01 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can show you the water closet! It will cost five cents.
posted by roger ackroyd at 8:05 PM on October 10, 2012 [7 favorites]

posted by roger ackroyd at 8:07 PM on October 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wow, I really want to go back and find all of these now. I read and re-read them many times as a kid.
posted by synecdoche at 8:20 PM on October 10, 2012

I loved these books so much as a kid. The only problem with them was that nobody I grew up with was nearly as interested as the characters were in putting their money where their mouth is. It made it hard to model my own shenanigans on those of the books.
posted by gauche at 8:22 PM on October 10, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow, I loved these as a kid too! Just found one of them recently and might have to give it a reread. Thanks for the post!
posted by cvp at 9:09 PM on October 10, 2012

I think I may have read these books in Korean when I was little! Thanks for bringing back cool memories!
posted by tickingclock at 9:10 PM on October 10, 2012

prizes did not appear in Cracker Jack until 1912 (WP Great Brain)

Could be the first example in the US of trickle-down economics.
posted by Twang at 10:00 PM on October 10, 2012

My sister and I loved these when we were children! I was just thinking last week about the one where Tom wins both of the races with both the faster and the slower horse by using different strategies. I still lost my race though.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 10:25 PM on October 10, 2012

Thank you! I also read and reread those books as a kid. I was just thinking about them the other day - there's a scene in one of them in which the kids go to the cafe in town and have a meal of chili and cornbread, followed by banana cream pie. When I was 10 I thought that this meal was possibly the best thing in this world for a person to eat. Now I don't have to use an Ask question to find the answer!
posted by harkin banks at 10:29 PM on October 10, 2012

I absolutely loved these books when I was a kid! I am going to enjoy reading the background info. Wonder if I can get hold of a copy of any of Fitzgerald's books for adults.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:02 PM on October 10, 2012

I loved these books too - magnetic wood, indian wrestling, the rafting trip and the cave rescue! So great.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:49 PM on October 10, 2012

I loved these books too when I was a kid. I remember reading the one where Tom goes to the Catholic academy, but none of the stories from that one stick with me. The ones that stick with me are the ones about generosity and indifference. Tom teaching the kid with one leg how to kick the can. Abie dying of starvation because Adenville's shoppers prefer the ZCMI. The get-rich-quick huckster of Alkali Flats, and the townspeople who pooh-pooh Tom. Frankie giving his hobby-horse to the child with juvenile diabetes.
posted by infinitewindow at 12:56 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

I came here to say this: I loved these books too when I was a kid.

I think what I liked most (and I hope I am remembering this correctly) was that internecine punishment in the family involved the "silent treatment" which was unbearable to the narrator.
posted by chavenet at 1:58 AM on October 11, 2012

Another thing that stood out to me was how every male had the middle name "Dennis" as a mark of shame. That's just such a weird thing for a kid to have to cope with. For some reason, although I know I read them for the big adventures and the funny scenes, it's the details that have stuck with me over the years. Glad to see I'm not the only one who felt that way.
posted by graymouser at 3:25 AM on October 11, 2012

I remember presenting an entire book report in front of my fifth grade class where I referred to it as "The Great Brian" and it wasn't until years later that I realized that the title was actually "The Great Brain". Strangely, the mismatch between the names never occurred to me.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 3:39 AM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Loved these books too and never knew there were "adult" versions. Going to consume Finding Fitzgerald all day today.
posted by DU at 4:00 AM on October 11, 2012

Add me to the chorus of Great Brain fans. The scene that most stuck in my mind over the years was when they went on the fishing trip, and the Great Brain cut the phosphurus underwater and used it to attract fish.

Oh, and the story of Abie dying really got to me as a kid, and still does.

I wish there were a nice box set of these available, I'd snap that up in a minute.
posted by namewithoutwords at 4:43 AM on October 11, 2012

There was a box set of the first five. I received it as a Christmas present one year and I read and reread the books numerous times. I still remember how amazed I was when several years later I came across numbers 6 and 7 in the library. A few years after his death (1988) an eighth volume was released which I have not yet read.
posted by BigSky at 5:13 AM on October 11, 2012

Funny enough, I was just reading the Great Brain this week to my kids as a nightly bedtime story. All was well through the water closet and the mumps, but ooh-wee, the rescue from Skeleton Cave did a number on them. There were tears and call-backs and getting-out-of-bed for about two hours after lights out. Had to leave the radio on and an extra light to get my five-year-old to sleep. So we're switching to a different book for a while. (I was loving it though...)
posted by alb at 5:35 AM on October 11, 2012

I loved those books as a kid, and just this year picked up a used set of them and re-read them all. Usually this is a recipe for disappointment when books don't hold up to cherished childhood memories, but the Great Brain books were just as enjoyable as I remembered them.
posted by fimbulvetr at 6:34 AM on October 11, 2012

Another amazing thing about the internet: I loved these books growing up, but no one else at school had ever seen or heard of them. I had no one to talk to about them! So they sort of existed as a "secret" memory for me until now. I'm glad so many others loved these, too.
posted by fiercecupcake at 8:00 AM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Loved the Great Brain series very much and reread them many times. I think my favorite incident was Tom catching train robbers because he figured out that a guy who was killed had recognized the robber by a scar that wasn't covered by his bandanna, and then asked the town barber to tell him all the people in the area with scars.
posted by dlugoczaj at 8:39 AM on October 11, 2012

Loved these, too, especially the Academy book. Riding in the locomotive engine, sneaking to the candy store, beating the older kids at basketball....
posted by Chrysostom at 8:43 AM on October 11, 2012

While we're sharing favorite episodes, I think mine was the story from the Academy about Tom's figuring out the mentalist's tricks. I was pretty fascinated with deception as a kid, and that really made an impression.

My inspiration for this post was a business trip to Salt Lake City last week. I kept thinking about Tom at the Academy and the whole series, really - and there is a massive, beautiful ZCMI building right downtown (which now houses a Macy's, but still has the ZCMI facade). It brought it all back, and one night I got online to see what more i could learn and was really happy to find all the info in Finding Fitzgerald, especially the little discoveries sprinkled throughout the blog.
posted by Miko at 9:08 AM on October 11, 2012

Thanks for posting this. I, too, was a major fan of the books. I remember reading the back cover the second one when I was 7 or so, which said that Fitzgerald lived in Titusville, FL. I went to my Dad and asked him if we could go to Titusville (we lived in Sarasota) to visit.
posted by Thistledown at 9:45 AM on October 11, 2012

Thanks for posting that. I also loved those books as a kid and read and reread them again and again. I still pick them up occasionally to reread and always enjoy them. It is finally time to read the adult books.

I just went to my bookshelf and picked up my childhood copies (1,2,3,5,6,7 - somehow the best got lost). When I leaf through the books there are so many things that made an impression on me. Here are a few:

- Sammy getting his ass kicked twice. The first time by the Greek immigrant Basil who pasted Sammy good - And T.D. and J.D. got to eat their first restaurant meal. The second by Britches Dotty who made Sammy eat dirt. Sammy sure suffered for his sexist and anti-foreigner opinions.
- Cal Roberts kidnapping poor little Frankie and Uncle Marks crazy plan to shoot him as he rode right down main street. And J.D. totally saving the day.
- Tom's magic show.
- The awesome game of outlaw and posse.
- Tom cleaning out the whole town with his wheel of fortune.
- The forth of July tug of war game in which the Gentiles flat out cheated.
- Interesting that so many of you mentioned the death of Abie Glassman. I still don't re-read that chapter - just too sad for me.
- Tom catching the Alkali Flat swindlers.
- Puppy Love
- Indian Squaw Wrestling - which I didn't understand until a friend showed me years later.

enough Great Brain memories. Thanks!!!
posted by jazh at 1:38 PM on October 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Reading through the blog, it would appear that the Great Brain's adult life was disappointing, with a wife and infant dead in childbirth and his second family abandoning him due to his alcoholism. As much as the nerdy completist in me is satisfied to know what happened after the books ended, the kid is me is so sad for the grown-up lives of my childhood "friends."
posted by sobell at 5:06 PM on October 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

sobell: "As much as the nerdy completist in me is satisfied to know what happened after the books ended, the kid is me is so sad for the grown-up lives of my childhood "friends.""

Advice: don't check into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:56 PM on October 11, 2012

Advice: don't check into the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Too late! (I often wonder why publishers bothered bundling The First Four Years into the gift box, it's such a radical departure.)

(Also, don't ever read Maud Hart Lovelace's Emily of Deep Valley, then find out what happened to the real-life woman who inspired that lovely book.)
posted by sobell at 9:55 PM on October 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

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