Of the many things that a young fellow, barely knee-high to a grasshopper, might aspire to be when he grows up, one that doesn’t often come to mind is “grifter.” Yet in my early 20s, intoxicated by the demimonde allure of pulp novels by Jim Thompson and Charles Willeford, I was reminded of a time in early childhood when it was not firefighter, police officer, or astronaut but dirty rotten swindler that felt like my true calling.
The bad influence in my case was Tom Fitzgerald, the antihero of one of the finest, most durable series of children’s novels ever written. John D. Fitzgerald’s The Great Brain, the first of seven books about the exploits and exploitations of a “junior-grade confidence man” in late-nineteenth-century Utah, appeared fifty years ago, in 1967. It is junior-grade Twain, a vivid, delightful tribute to American childhood.
I resist saying “a lost American childhood.” This past summer I reread The Great Brain Reforms at a swimming hole in Philmont, New York: “We all went swimming naked, because nobody owned a bathing suit then.” I looked up at kids bobbing in the spray of the waterfall. They weren’t naked, but everything else about the scene—from the treacherous, algae-slick rocks to the emerald water to the boy plucking baby leeches from his legs—felt as though it had been summoned straight from the page.
Even so, today’s kids could stand a refresher course. With his “great brain and money-loving heart”—and his guileless kid brother, J. D., acting as narrator and foil—Tom Fitzgerald teaches us that the smarter you are, the more fun you have. He is a boy on whom nothing is lost. Every new situation, beginning with his father’s purchase of the first water closet in Adenville, Utah, affords an opportunity for edification, profit, entertainment, and, invariably, trouble.
Tom’s schemes may be loosely classified as helpful, helpful but self-interested, purely self-interested, or downright malicious. When he saves the kids lost in Skeleton Cave (shades of Tom Sawyer), he is using his brain for good. When he promises to turn a Greek immigrant boy into a “hundred per cent American kid”; to give the Pygmalion treatment to an unhappy, motherless tomboy; or to foil a pair of confidence men selling bogus stock to Adenville’s citizens, he is after quid pro quo.
Tom’s contraband candy store in The Great Brain at the Academy—a book amusingly patterned on prison drama, right down to a key duplicated with a bar of soap—exists solely to empty his schoolmates’ pockets. The same goes for his stock-in-trade: persuading kids to make bets they can’t win and deals they’ll get screwed on. In the course of seven books, Tom manages to cheat the youth of Adenville out of a Sears Roebuck-catalogue’s worth of sports equipment, bowie knives, air rifles, and anything else a kid could desire. He certainly never has to do his own chores.
Wanna bet he can’t read minds? (It’s a trick!) Control minds? (It’s a trick!) Magnetize wood? (It’s a boomerang!) At times it is easier to believe, as Fitzgerald requires us to, that a child could solve a bank robbery or resolve a hostage crisis than that everyone in town would keep falling for Tom’s cons.
But Tom’s schemes are not all Norman Rockwellian boys-will-be-boys mischief. He is marked by an ugly competitiveness, a vengeful streak, and a carelessness about people’s well-being. In depicting these aspects of the Great Brain, Fitzgerald possesses an Augustinian sense of the darkness in a child’s unformed nature. Tom humiliates his older brother on a fishing trip. He punishes a strict schoolmaster by framing him as an alcoholic to get him fired. He writes a letter to the pope in hopes of disgracing a teacher at his Jesuit academy. When his father, the editor of Adenville’s newspaper, refuses him a job, he publishes a rival paper containing sensational gossip:
LOCAL NEWS OF INTEREST
If Mrs. Haggerty will stop nagging her husband all the time, he will stop getting drunk. Sarah Pickens is going to die an old maid because she is too stuck up and choosey to marry a local man who loves her. . . . If the Widow Rankin spent as much money on her kids as she does on herself trying to catch a new husband, her kids wouldn’t look like ragamuffins. Mrs. Lee’s brother, Stanley, isn’t in the Army like she tells people. He is serving time in the State Penitentiary. . . .
Some parents don’t seem to realize that their kids are growing up and continue to treat them like little kids. When a boy gets to be eleven going on twelve, his parents should start treating him like a young man and not like a kid anymore.
This chafing at authority, this drive to outsmart adults and thus cut them down to size, is great fun to root for as a kid. It is also instructive to see it backfire from time to time, with adults getting the last wise word after all. Here, for instance, is “Papa” putting an end to Tom’s river-raft excursion business: “You and every boy in this town know that when it rains hard in the mountains there is a very good possibility of a flood in the river. . . . You knew the water was turning muddy, indicating the possibility of a flood. And yet you jeopardized the lives of six boys for thirty cents. And as a result, Jimmy Peterson and Howard Kay almost drowned.”
The world in which these books take place is one full of danger, and we see its young characters grow morally in part by learning to negotiate that danger. In Me and My Little Brain, the only book in which Tom doesn’t appear, J. D. is charged with the task of “curing” a traumatized boy whose parents have been killed in a landslide. Drowning, disease, criminal predation, poverty, and other misfortunes are ever-present realities, in spite of the books’ mostly rosy nostalgia. And today’s readers may raise their eyebrows at how much fighting happens, and how casually, in these pages.
The Fitzgerald children, as part of one of the few Catholic or “Gentile” (non-Mormon) families in Adenville, are better fighters than most. “Most of our playmates were Mormon kids,” J. D. relates, “but we taught them tolerance. . . . There is nothing as tolerant and understanding as a kid you can whip.” This is an interesting alternative to today’s diversity teaching—that differences are more easily tolerated when they are first more dramatically acknowledged. (The fighting isn’t ideal, of course, but the idea is worth considering.) The Great Brain series is a good way to teach kids about tolerance, diversity, and equality. The example of white Mormons, white Protestants, and white Catholics (plus a random Greek family) learning to get along abstracts these concepts to their essence.
Above all, the Great Brain series is a tribute to problem-solving and to living life with curiosity and rigor. It is refreshing, when so much literature for children and young adults seems to emanate from crudely adolescent power fantasies—sorcery, superpowers, sex appeal—to see good-ol’ settin’ and thinkin’ win the day.
The Great Brain series was “a huge influence on my life,” recalls Hal Johnson, the author of the young-adult books Immortal Lycanthropes and Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods. “Plenty of children’s books of the time had smart characters, but those characters just served to spout statistics and deliver exposition. Tom Fitzgerald, though, had to be smart for real, all cunning tricks and clever schemes. He earns his great brain.” Sure does. When Tom’s brain starts “working like sixty,” things don’t always go right, but they always go somewhere exciting. As the old saw has it, and the Great Brain would surely agree, only the boring get bored.