Does anyone else feel guilty going into the children’s section of the library? It’s like they make everything really short, so that you’ll feel like you’ve outgrown all the awesome books you used to love.
Well, last week, my sense of nostalgia overcame my fear of being in the children’s section. Now, I have recently moved to this area, so I’ve only been to this library once or twice (well, at least twice; because if you go once, you have to go back to return the book) (that’s just how libraries work). I found a certain amount of self-satisfaction to be able to walk in there and be able to hone in on my target as if I’d been there a hundred times instead of only a couple.
But what led me to the short-stacks in the first place?
John D. Fitzgerald and The Great Brain, by way of Mamma’s Boarding House.
It feels like trying to choose between the chicken and the egg, which to tell you about first. (interesting side-note, apparently new studies are pointing to the chicken developing first, with further evolution leading to the egg-laying capabilities)(yeah, but can they ever tell us why the chicken crossed the road???)
So….I read The Great Brain series as a child. Fast-forward to today, and then rewind two weeks. A random thrift store had drawn me into its fold. Or rather, as long as my sister was going to look around, I was going to look at the books. We can talk about the smell and the atmosphere of old books sometime, and the way it calls to me.
It took a little bit of maneuvering, but I was finally able to work myself in among the books. I like to scan quickly, left to right, top to bottom. I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I know it when I see it. While I’ll read pretty much anything, I do have a type, especially with old books—I like the worn-in ones; the ones that are faded and yellowing, but you can tell they used to have red- or green-edged pages; paperbacks that are a little thinner and smaller than the ones you see today; the kind of books that not only tell a good story, but tell you stories about the people that used to read them. Sometimes the title catches my eye. Sometimes the author. But when I find it, it’s like finding buried treasure or winning the lottery, or just being in the right place at the right time.
And Mamma’s Boarding House was one of those books. When I saw it, suddenly the whole day, every little stop and every little errand was worthwhile. It was just one of those books that I saw out of the corner of my eye. And then I saw the title. And then the author. This was one of my great finds—One that I didn’t know existed; one I wasn’t looking for, until I found it.
I didn’t even wait until we got home to start reading it. I heartily encouraged my sister to make all the stops she needed, take all the time she wanted—I’d just wait in the car and read.
Mamma’s Boarding House comes after Papa Married a Mormon, which I thought came after the series, but apparently came first. Confused? I was. I felt like history was rewritten after I found this book.
As I said, I absolutely loved John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain series as a child. It was while I was searching for more of his books that I found Papa Married a Mormon, an adult book. And I thought Papa Married a Mormon, was Fitzgerald’s last book, a culmination of the series.
I had read the Great Brain series for fun, but Papa Married a Mormon was written biographically, telling the story of how Fitzgerald’s father came west, how his father and mother met—They had a great romance and married each other four times, through a series of defining events. It was a majestic story of a simple family in the turn of the century
, while it was still a little wild. Fitzgerald tells how it was his mother’s wish for him to someday tell the story of his family and the way things were. Utah
After reading Papa Married a Mormon, I found an entirely new outlook on The Great Brain series. The Great Brain was fiction, and for younger readers, but it came from the same town, Adenville, and had the same characters. The Great Brain was wild, and a bit of a caricature, but all of a sudden, it also became very real. The things that had seemed improbable were suddenly possible.
The Great Brain series tells the story of brothers; one John D., who idolizes his older brother, Tom D. John D., or J.D. is the main character; Tom, or T.D., is its namesake. Tom is an interesting character; he’s both a hero and a villain, and a character that I have never adored or hated so much at the same time. I love Tom for his amazing antics, for his last-minute heroics, and even for his scheming plots that make life in Adenville very interesting. Tom is rarely malicious, but neither does he have the most morally straight of compasses.
At ten years old, Tom can outwit all the children, and most of the adults. Tom can’t stand people who think they’re better than him, and can’t resist putting them in their place. He, however, glows in adulation—and is the first to tell you about his greatness. But whenever T.D. isn’t saving the day (and even when he is), he’s constantly scheming and conniving ways to make money. He’s so slick, that most people can’t outwit his logic. And he’s also got the advantage that those who know they’ve been duped, are too embarrassed to do anything about it.
And for all his moral failings, I would absolutely adore Tom—except for one. Because, Tom’s younger brother John is his most constant victim. While my mind tells me every single time that John should know better—In fact, John’s mind is constantly telling him that there’s some sort of trap and he shouldn’t take the deal. But John always takes the deal and pays the price, because he absolutely adores his brother and trusts him without fail. My dislike of Tom is that he takes advantage of John’s loyalty and trust at every chance he gets.
But when it comes down to it, the only thing worse than living with the Great Brain, is living without him and all the adventure and excitement he brings with him.
I was overjoyed to continue the story, when I found Mamma’s Boarding House. This book begins where Papa Married a Mormon left off. Clearly my grade school chronology was off. Not only was Mamma’s Boarding House the second book, but there was a third, Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse, that came before the children’s series. It turns out that the children’s series was actually begun as the fourth book of the adult series. It was a matter of timing, a decline in interest in adult books of this nature, mixed with in-house publishing reorganizing that led to the fourth book being edited for children, and the development of The Great Brain series.
Resetting my chronology, I dove into the story as if I’d never left, reading with gusto about a widow trying to make ends meet by opening her house to boarders of a colorful variety. The book weaves small-town vignettes back and forth through tales of the boarding house and its occupants. As I was reading, I was mentally planning my trip to
, when the whole town is dramatically swept away in a flood, leaving the surviving townspeople to rebuild somewhere else, anew. Utah
Well, no problem—it could have eventually been rebuilt, or possibly have become a ghost town—But I could still visit, at least drive by and say I’d been there.
So I googled
. And to my surprise and shock, not only is it not there—but it never was!!! It was ALL fiction. I did some more searching. There was NO Adenville. Papa Fitzgerald never ran a newspaper. And according to one site (Finding Fitzgerald), Tom D.’s middle initial isn’t even D.—It’s N.!!!!—And while that little detail might not seem like a big deal, trust me, it is. Adenville, Utah
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so deflated. And the thing is, hadn’t I started out reading the series as fiction? Just enjoying it for the fun of it?
Were the stories any less amazing, for being fiction, not fact? Did they capture my imagination any less? Are the adventures any less spirited or heartwarming?
No. So even knowing they weren’t real, I went back and re-read my childhood treasures with the same passion and enjoyment as I felt as a kid.
When I finished, I no longer felt that deflated sensation, but rather, a sense of awe. John D. Fitzgerald created such warm, rich characters that I (and many others) believed were REAL. He described such a wondrous, magical place that people search for it. They want to go there and visit.
Honestly, I can’t believe that it’s all fiction, that it isn’t without a grain of truth—Maybe everything Fitzgerald describes didn’t happen in Adenville, but I think they happened somewhere. The things attributed to these characters may not have happened to these characters, but I think they did happen to real people. In fact, I found an amazing site, called Finding Fitzgerald, where the author felt the same way and has done some amazing research connecting the Fitzgerald’s characters, places, and events to their real-life inspirations.
Looking back over my journey of the last week or so, and the collection of Fitzgerald’s books has really made me appreciate him as an author. I don’t say this lightly, but I would compare Fitzgerald with Mark Twain—writing with a flourish and an abundance of poetic license, but still leaving a legacy of the way things were.
Out of all this, I think one thing remains true: A good book is a good book.