John D. Fitzgerald has written a book that is “one hundred percent boy” in this first in a series about the Great Brain (T.D.), the cleverest ten year old con man west of the Mississippi. Eight year old J.D., the Great Brain’s brother, describes the antics of his exceptionally intelligent sibling as he swindles nearly every child in Adenville, Utah out of his/her allowance. T.D. views everything from the installment of the town’s first indoor water closet in their home to helping the new kid in town make friends as an opportunity to expand his bank account.
J.D.’s humorous description of life in the late nineteenth century will surely amuse every elementary school boy. T.D. and J.D., along with their older brother Sweyn (S.D.), engage in all the typical activities that boys have traditionally loved: swimming, wrestling, avoiding chores and breaking in the new teacher to name a few. While J.D. knows his brother’s “Great Brain” is always cooking something up, he never stops admiring him.
One unfortunate incident at the end of the book requires explanation, however. J.D.’s friend Andy, against his parents’ orders, plays in an abandoned barn and steps on a rusty nail. Afraid to admit where he has been, Andy does not tell anyone about the accident until his leg is so infected that it must be amputated. Unable to do any chores, Andy decides he would do his parents a favor by killing himself. J.D., out of a sense of loyalty decides to help him. After several failed attempts, they are discovered by the Great Brain, who reprimands them. He also takes upon himself the task of teaching Andy how to do his chores as well as to play sports with his peg leg. J.D. has no doubt that his brother will succeed at this, his greatest challenge ever. J.D. is surprised, however, when T.D. refuses payment for his services. The Great Brain’s satisfaction at helping Andy is payment enough, and he changes his scheming ways.
While the Great Brain’s reform is heartwarming, the author treats suicide lightly. This may be a function of the era in which the book was written; a time when it was taken for granted that suicide was evil. The rest of this book is delightfully entertaining and sure to appeal even to boys who do not like to read. Parents may feel the need to discuss the seriousness of suicide and the obligation a friend has to report any suicide threats made by another child to an adult.
Jennifer Minicus is a mother and teacher currently living in Ridgewood, NJ.