Caught Between a Great Brain and a Money-Loving Heart

On the subject of funny kids books about boys, another favorite besides Gordon Korman is The Great Brain series by John D. Fitzgerald.  Based loosely on Fitzgerald’s childhood, the books are set in a small town in Utah in the 1890s.  The Great Brain of the title is John’s older brother Tom, who has a brilliant intellect and a “money-loving heart.”

There are seven books in the series, each a string of vignettes.  John narrates in first-person about the adventures of his brother Tom, who always has a scheme going to swindle someone–including John, who never seems to learn that it’s impossible to win a wager against Tom.

Tom is very clever, and it’s always fun to see what scheme he’ll come up with next.  I’ve never been a big reader of mysteries but I like figuring things out, and guessing at what plot Tom is devising, or how he’ll solve some problem, always makes for good puzzles.  Tom is a great character in that he never becomes TOO unlikable.  He’s immensely proud of his Great Brain, and he loves to get money out of people.  He doesn’t cheat, though–he finds ways to trick them, usually exploiting their own gullibility or greed.  He also uses his Great Brain to help people, sometimes saving lives or dramatically changing lives for the better.  He usually gets something for it too…but that’s always the question, of whether he’s acting from compassion or from greed!  Usually I get the sense it’s a little of both.  He’s also not above being humbled at times when greed or pride leads him into a serious mistake.

John is a good character, sweet-natured and modest.  He often refers to his “little brain” in comparison to his brother’s Great Brain.  John is rather eclipsed by Tom, but that aspect of the books seems to work–it’s John’s story about his brother, so it makes sense that he’s giving Tom the center stage.  John’s obvious admiration and love for his brother (no matter how many times Tom swindles him!) also goes a long way to setting Tom up as a likable character.

The stories are mostly light and funny.  They’re not the hilarity of Gordon Korman, but they are very entertaining.  There are some serious ones mixed in too.  Sometimes the situations kids get into have real peril, as when two boys get lost in a network of caves, or when one boy loses his leg to an infection and contemplates killing himself.  The Great Brain series is another example of how deep children’s books can be, addressing very serious issues and subject matter, while being child-appropriate.

And fun, of course.  Even though the stories are sometimes serious and Tom is out to swindle others to satisfy his money-loving heart, these still come across as sweet stories about family, set in a small town in a quieter time.  Well-worth the read.

Other reviews:
The Five Borough Book Review
Books 4 Your Kids
There must be more…tell me about yours?

About cherylmahoney

I'm a book review blogger and Fantasy writer. I have published three novels, The Wanderers; The Storyteller and Her Sisters; and The People the Fairies Forget. All can be found on Amazon as an ebook and paperback. In my day job, I'm the Marketing Specialist for Yolo Hospice. Find me on Twitter (@MarvelousTales) and GoodReads (MarvelousTales).
This entry was posted in Historical Fiction, Juvenile, Reviews and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Caught Between a Great Brain and a Money-Loving Heart

  1. Memory says:

    I loved these books when I was a kid! Thinking back over them, though, I’m pretty sure the series somehow got tangled up with Encyclopedia Brown inside my little kid brain. I seem to remember them as the same thing, even though I know they’re really not. I suspect my elementary school librarian recommended them at the same time.

    • That’s so funny! They really aren’t very similar…though I guess they’re both about boys in neighborhoods, with a puzzle element to the stories… It always fascinates me which weird and usually unimportant elements of a story I still remember years later, and which other parts have gone completely blurry.

  2. dianem57 says:

    I remember those stories! I used to shelve them when I worked in the childrens’ room at a library a long time ago. They were VERY popular. It’s nice to read stories set in a different, less frenetic time.

  3. I loved these books growing up. Awhile ago I re-read this one as an adult and I still really liked it but was surprised at how sad some bits were. I think those parts just kind of floated past me as a kid.

    • There are definitely some heavy issues–and I agree that I don’t think that made a big impression on me as a kid! It wasn’t what I remember of the books, even though that is there.

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