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Literature / The Great Brain

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The Great Brain is a series of eight children's books written by John D. Fitzgerald. Taking place in the fictional town of Adenville, Utah, near the beginning of the 20th century, the books follow the various adventures of the middle Fitzgerald children.

Tom "TD" Fitzgerald, the titular "Great Brain", is an extremely smart child who balances his time between playing detective and coming up with various schemes to con the local kids out of their money and possessions. His brother John "JD" Fitzgerald narrates TD's various adventures and spends most of his time being the Butt-Monkey of the series. Other major characters include TD and JD's older brother Sweyn; their adopted brother Franky; their parents; their adoptive Aunt Bertha; their Uncle Mark (who is the town marshal), and a couple of dozen or so neighborhood kids and their various family members.


List of books in the series:
  • The Great Brain
  • More Adventures of the Great Brain
  • Me And My Little Brain (focuses on JD's life while Tom is away at the Academy of the following book, introduces adopted brother Franky to the cast)
  • The Great Brain at the Academy
  • The Great Brain Reforms
  • The Return of the Great Brain
  • The Great Brain Does It Again
  • The Great Brain Is Back

Related books (these books share the same setting and were published before the Great Brain books. The Great Brain series grew out of these novels, as an AU series focusing on the children):

  • Papa Married a Mormon
  • Mama's Boarding House


This book series provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Abandoned Mine: An abandoned mine is the setting of a ghost scare prank in one of the books.
  • Adults Are Useless: Played straight most of the time. While the adults aren't completely incompetent, whenever something comes up its usually up to Tom to set things right. Lampshaded in the very first book, when Tom actually gives a speech to a crowd of adults about how "when the adults failed, I knew it was up to me to suceed". Subverted somewhat with the teachers at the academy, who prove to be fairly on the ball; Sweyn even warns Tom about this during their trip to the school, and agrees to not interfere with any schemes as long as Tom accepts all responsibility when (inevitably) he gets caught.
  • After-School Cleaning Duty: In The Great Brain at the Academy, cleaning the bathrooms and Peeling Potatoes are two of the standard punishments. Tom finds a bright side to it when he finds the dormitory bathroom provides a handy way to sneak out of the school to buy candy. Even when they're not being punished, every student has an assigned area to clean and has to take a turn helping in the kitchen.
  • Alternate Continuity: The Great Brain books are not exactly canon with the two adult novels. Numerous details about the town and characters contradict each other between the novels and the Great Brain, and several Fitzgerald family members are completely absent from the Great Brain series.
  • Author Avatar: JD is an obvious avatar of the series Author John D. Fitzgerald
  • Batman Gambit: The Outlaw Cal Roberts pulls off a fairly good one in order to get at his intended targets. And of course, Tom pulls them off left and right.
  • Big Brother Worship: Frankie grows to adore JD as a brother and loves to seek his advice and friendship... until he meets Tom and quickly shifts his priorities to the Great Brain.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: Happens at least once a book; JD insults Tom in some way, Tom manipulates JD into "punishing himself" by threatening to tell their parents, all while denying that it even counts as blackmail at all.
  • Black Market: In book 4 Tom sets up a black market candy store inside the Academy, because the school has a strict "no candy on campus" rule, and he knows the desperate children will be more than willing to buy overpriced candy from him if they can get it.
  • Boarding School: The Academy in Salt Lake City that Tom and Sweyn attend.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Sammy Leeds and his father hold racist attitude towards immigrants despite Sammy's own grandfather being an immigrant.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: Frankie Pennyworth, who the Fitzgeralds adopt in the third book starts off this way. JD initially calls him “Frankenstein Dollarworth” (“He’s a monster, and a dollar’s worth of trouble”). He gets better... a little.
  • Break the Haughty: Wanting to prove he's mature enough to help with his father's paper, Tom uses an old press to start his own paper. While he does solve a bank robbery in the process, most of the news he prints is malicious gossip that has been going around for years. After the neighbors threaten legal action against Papa, he appeases the crowd then proceeds to call Tom out, telling him he's too immature to do more than deliver a paper, reducing Tom to tears for the first time in his life.
  • Bumbling Dad: Mr. Fitzgerald is a mild case: though he is shown to be very intelligent and competent at most things, he's also portrayed as somewhat gullible and he can be careless when he gets caught up in an idea (such as when he gets the family lost in his zeal to find a new fishing hole on a camping trip).
  • Buryour Disabled: Narrowly averted when Andy Anderson loses his leg to gangrene and tries to kill himself with J.D.'s help. Neither attempt is successful to begin with, but Tom walks in on the two trying to hang Andy in the barn and offers-for a fee, of course,- to teach Andy to do his chores and play games with his peg leg.
  • Butt-Monkey: JD, who ends up the target of Tom's schemes, blackmail, and general jerkassery more than anyone else.
  • Can't Get Away with Nuthin': JD, in contrast to Tom, rarely ever manages to successfully pull off his own schemes, and never manages to outsmart his brother.
  • Chain of Deals: JD attempts this in Book 3. He's pretty good at it until he gets to the end and realizes he never figured out what he wanted out of the deals.
  • Christianity Is Catholic: Averted, as the books are set in Utah. Though the Fitzgeralds are Catholic, the boys only see a priest once a year and never see a Catholic church until they go away to school.
  • Closer to Earth: Mrs. Fitzgerald fits this to a tee, she isn't so easily swayed as her husband, in general or by Tom in particular, and she's always the first to take charge in a crisis. JD points out that "there's no disputing one of mamma's decisions".
  • Consummate Liar: Despite expressing an aversion to outright lying, Tom falls into this category, due to his tendency to manipulate the truth. And by the later books he just outright lies anyway.
  • Cowboys and Indians: The game of "Posse and Outlaw" the children play in book 6.
  • Cut Lex Luthor a Check: Tom is intelligent enough to make money without resorting to cheating and manipulation, and he does come up with a few legit business ventures over the series, but always ends up falling back on his con man ways.
  • A Day In The Lime Light: JD is the First-Person Peripheral Narrator for most of the books except book 3, which is all about him.
  • Dean Bitterman: Subverted with Father Rodriguez; he appears to be one after he and Tom get off on the wrong foot, but Tom sees him as a Reasonable Authority Figure by the end of the book. This is largely Protagonist-Centered Morality as well; most of what we know about him is based on the perspective of Tom, who is, well, actively breaking rules.
  • Defeat Means Friendship:
    • Sammy Leads picks on the Greek immigrant Basil until Basil manages to beat him in a fight. After that the two are as friendly with each other as they are with anyone else.
    • In Papa Married a Mormon Earnest "Dirty" Dawson ends up befriending the whole Fitzgerald family after Tom whips him, to the point that they take him in when his father does.
  • Demoted to Extra: Sweyn started out the series as a main character along with Tom and John, despite being put on a train in the second to last chapter of book 1. Except for Book 4, he plays an increasingly smaller part in the storyline as the books go on, as he spends most of his time away at school.
  • Devil in Plain Sight: Tom, although most people in town catch on pretty quickly that he's not to be underestimated.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Abie Glassman dies in Mama's arms.
  • Direct Line to the Author: In Book 4, JD tells the reader that the stories of the academy that he's narrating are pieced together from the sometimes contradictory secondhand accounts given to him by his brothers Tom and Sweyn and the letters they wrote home during their year away at school.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: If you ever get on Tom's bad side, for any reason, be prepared to suffer extreme consequences. The worst may possibly be the very first book, in which Tom conspires to get his school teacher fired by framing him for drinking, all because the teacher paddled him.
  • Dumb Is Good: Completely averted. JD flat out says that it's not Tom's Intelligence that makes him a Jerkass, but his "money loving heart".
  • Exact Words: TD often takes advantage of this to pull off a scheme or lie without technically lying.
  • Expy: Fitzgerald later wrote a book called Private Eye, set in the 1970s, with several similar characters: the Tom expy was more of a Kid Detective, but still had an admiring First-Person Peripheral Narrator brother, similar parents, and a bully/friend along the lines of Sammy Leeds.
  • Failure Is the Only Option: Every time Tom comes up with a legitimate business venture that doesn't involve cheating people (river rafting, a homemade chute-the-chute, a magic show, etc.) something eventually happens to put put an end to it.
  • Family Theme Naming: All of the Fitzgerald men have the middle name "Dennis".
  • Fate Worse than Death: The "silent treatment", JD's family's ultimate punishment. For a period of time determined by the inflicter, you are treated as though you don't exist. It is presented as being utterly crushing.
  • Faux Action Girl: Britches Dotty. She's introduced in book 2 as a tomboy capable of holding her own against the boys in most things, and manages to beat up the biggest bully in school in a fair fight. By the end of her chapter though, she's been transformed into a normal girl and gives up "masculine" pursuits. Considering where and when this happened, it was inevitable.
  • First Name Ultimatum: The main characters parents call them by their initials normally. Anytime a parent calls a child by his full first and middle name, he knows he's in trouble.
  • Gone Horribly Right: As part of a prank, Tom and JD create fake footprints to make it seem like a dinosaur is in the area, thinking it'll be a good laugh. To their shock, their father and uncle actually believe it and it starts to build up into a big story with the government about to be called in. When the two confess, their mother laughs out loud at how the two supposedly sane and smart adults fell for this ruse.
  • Good Is Boring: This is JD's opinion, after Tom reforms.
  • Honor Before Reason: To the point of being Values Dissonance at times. The characters put quit a lot of emphasis on the importance of honor, reputation, and having a good family name. JD several times mentions that he'd rather die or run away from home than shame his family, and accusing someone of lying or cheating is grounds for a fight, even if there was good reason for the accusation. And the kids will pretty much do anything in order to prove that they aren't cowards. TD, of course, is Genre Savvy enough to often take advantage of this to get the other kids to do what he wants.
  • Honorary Uncle: Aunt Bertha is not actually related to the Fitzgeralds, but they call her "aunt" because they consider her part of the family.
  • Hypocrite: Tom. He expresses a dislike for lying and espouses the virtues of honor and keeping your word...But he lies quit a bit to further his own needs, and Blackmail is one of his favorite punishments for his brother.
    • "Nobody calls Tom Dennis Fitzgerald a liar and gets away with it!" - The Great Brain at the Academy
  • Hypocritical Humor: A very dark example; the outlaw Cal Roberts disparages Uncle Mark's plan to ambush him as a "low-down trick for a marshal to pull" while he himself is holding a 4-year-old boy hostage at gunpoint. Lampshaded in the narration by JD.
  • Improvised Lockpick: In The Great Brain at the Academy, TD makes an impression in wax of the key to a locked room, then carves a duplicate out of wood.
  • It Will Never Catch On:
    • The very first chapter of the first book has Mr. Fitzgerald purchase Adenville's very first "Water Closet" (AKA an indoor toilet). This is the reaction of most of the town.
    • The bishop in book 4 says there never has been an athletic program at a Catholic school and there never will be.
  • Interrupted Suicide: Tom walks in on JD helping Andy commit suicide and puts a stop to it.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Tom's "explanation" to the other kids at the academy as to why his Black Market candy store is perfectly acceptable within the rules of the school borders on this; his logic doesn't hold up to any serious scrutiny, but the kids he's trying to convince accept it pretty fast. Many of Tom's other explanations for his schemes fall into this category too.
  • From a Certain Point of View: Tom is actually against outright lying, but has no problem at all using this trope to cover his tracks.
  • Jerkass: Tom, quit a bit of the time, especially as the books went on.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Also Tom, when he's doing something a little more heroic.
  • Jumping Off the Slippery Slope: The local kids put up with Tom's schemes...until he risks the lives of a whole raft full of them just to earn some money.
  • Kansas City Shuffle: Several of Tom's schemes fall under this heading, the entire scheme reliant upon Tom convincing his targets that they know how Tom is trying to cheat them, and thus have a certain win themselves. This despite the fact that every one of the kids in town openly calls Tom a swindler and con man and has been cheated by him multiple times, they ALWAYS take the bet. Frequently Tom enforces this by losing small bets initially, convincing the other kids to bet significantly larger amounts of money (or valuable item), and winning his final, largest bet with his intended mark. JD is a particular example of this trope, having had several of Tom's con schemes explained to him in full detail how Tom was guaranteed a win the entire time, and yet JD STILL takes Tom's bets.
  • Karma Houdini: Somewhat subverted; Tom actually gets in trouble quite a lot for the various stunts he pulls, to the point where he probably loses his allowance more weeks out of the year than he gets it. But on the other hand, the punishments he receives for his plans are often pretty light relative to what he actually does; such as when he tried to get his teacher fired by ruining his reputation; the punishment? a week of silent treatment.
    • A unique case when Tom plays a prank making it look like a dinosaur is in the area. Amazingly, his father (a newspaper publisher) falls for it, reporting it for real. When things are settled, he declines from punishing Tom, realizing him being fooled balances things out.
    • JD confirms Tom's Houdini status in-universe, when he points out that many townspeople have tried to have him arrested for his stunts, but are never able to because he never does anything technically illegal.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: The whole town goes through this when Abie Glassman dies from malnutrition and everyone begins to question if they're possibly Anti-Semitic and how differently things might have turned out if it had happened to someone else. As a result, guilt ran rampant throughout the town for a while.
  • Parental Obliviousness: Most notably in Book 5 when Papa and Mama don't realize until after the flood that Tom has been charging kids for rides on the raft, even though Papa had inspected it and been aware that Tom was making several trips a day and using one of his horses to haul it. Averted in other parts, where they suspect that the boys are up to something but elect to let them sort it out amongst themselves.
  • Peeling Potatoes: One of the standardized punishments handed out at the Academy.
  • Put on a Bus: Or rather a train; Sweyn is sent away to boarding school.
  • Radish Cure: Done in The Great Brain is Back when Tom, in experiment to find out why men smoke, gets caught smoking a cigarette in the barn. Papa tells him he may not smoke cigarettes outside, but he's free to have a pipe or cigar in the house anytime. Tom lasts about a few minutes before turning green, and when his girlfriend says she doesn't like the smell anyway, he concludes that men smoke in order to repel women.
  • Reality Ensues: Tom organizes a weekly raid on the Academy kitchen because he can't stand eating the regularly-scheduled serving of liver, and soon gets caught red-handed; of course the cooks would notice food disappearing from the pantry every week.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: While strict, the teachers at the academy are ultimately an example of this. One specific example being after the above-mentioned kitchen raids, Tom is punished.. but also allowed to eat a couple of soft-boiled eggs instead of the liver.
  • Retcon: Book 1 ends with Tom learning a lesson about good deeds being their own reward and reforming from his con man ways. Book 2 retcons this change of heart into a ruse used by Tom to fool their parents into buying him a new bicycle.
  • Rhymes on a Dime: Herbie the Poet, introduced in book 7, rhymes all his sentences. He soon admits he does this because, being severely overweight, he's not athletic enough to do much else.
  • Sadist Teacher:
    • Subverted; when the new teacher Mr. Standish is introduced, he's seen by the children as an unmerciful tyrant willing to paddle children for the slightest offense. However, it soon becomes clear to the heroes and the reader that he's actually a very dedicated upstanding man, and they actually come to respect him.
    • Subverted again with the entirety of book 4; Tom expects life at the academy to be miserable, as he's heard various horror stories of how strict everything is. By the end of the book he admits that, while the school did turn out to be very strict, he ended up respecting the teachers and their dedication to the students.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: Book 2 has the characters investigating a haunted mining town, where they run into a ghost. The ghost turns out to be the uncle of one of the neighborhood kids, who overheard them planning and dressed up as a ghost to scare the kids away.
    • Tom also perpetuates a "Scooby-Doo" Hoax against the entire town when he creates fake monster footprints near a cave. He only did it to teach a kid a lesson about bragging but the whole town ends up falling for it.
    • He also has J.D. dress as a devil to scare Herbie Sties into sticking to his diet. It works a little too well, and he refuses to eat for days. Tom confesses after hearing his parents called the doctor, but still thinks Mr Sties owes him money for the weight Herbie lost.
  • Second Place Is for Winners: The spelling bee in the last book.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!:
    • JD puts Tom on trial in book 5, and he only goes along with it because he's convinced he'll make fools out of them all. Harold proceeds to tear his logic and defense to pieces.
    • Father O'Malley does it in book 4, when he hears Tom's confession for the first time. Tom makes an excuse for every sin he confesses, and Fr. O'Malley tells him his confession has been blasphemous and gives him a huge penance.
  • Sociopathic Hero: A mild example with TD. Tom is greedy, manipulative, and more than willing to con people out of their money or posessions, and even when he does something truly heroic, there's usually a selfish reason behind his actions.
  • Too Dumb to Live: You start to wonder pretty quickly why anyone would make a bet with Tom, considering that he always wins. And yet the kids keep doing it. JD is a particularly bad example of this, multiple times across the books JD has had Tom or his father give him a fully detailed explanation of exactly how Tom was guaranteed a win the entire time, and yet he STILL takes Tom's deals and bets.
  • Un-Cancelled: It's obvious from reading the first book in the series that the author intended to write only one book. The seventh book also seemed to be written as an end to the series, but the eighth, which was published after Fitzgerald's death, starts right where the seventh left off.
    • The seventh actually seems to leave the door more open for sequels compared to the endings of the first, second, and fifth books.
  • We Want Our Jerk Back: After Tom reforms, JD secretly wishes for him to return to his former ways, because the reformed Tom is boring.
  • Wham Episode: Every book tends to have at least one chapter that's much more serious than all the rest, usually involving someone getting hurt or dying, and the characters learning some sort of Aesop about it. The hardest hitting one is probably the chapter in Book 1 when Abie Glassman dies.
  • Would Hurt a Child: The outlaw Cal Roberts takes a four-year-old child hostage and threatens to kill him if his demands are not met. After receiving the final list of demands, Uncle Mark realizes that Robert's intention is to murder the boy anyway for the sake of revenge.
  • The Woobie: Franky is an in-universe example, as his tragic backstory gains him loads of sympathy from nearly everyone and leads the Fitzgeralds to adopt him.
  • Young Entrepreneur: Tom sometimes follows this, when he's not trying to be a Honest John for a quick buck. In fact, the very first story deals with him charging other kids to view his family's brand new water closet. Other examples include taking kids on a river rafting trip and running a black marketcandy store out of a Jesuit boarding school.
  • Zany Scheme: Half the various plots of the series revolve around Tom pulling off one of these, usually for the purpose of taking someone's stuff or teaching them a lesson.


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