The Great Brain blurs the lines between character and narrator. The character of J.D. is a seven-to-eight-year-old boy, but the narrator is an adult looking back at his childhood. Well, except when he is a kid living in the moment—the narrator moves between his child and adult perspectives without warning, and it's often a subtle switch that's easy to miss.
That said, in general, the adult J.D. feels very nostalgic for his childhood. Just about everything is perfect—Mamma, Papa, Adenville:
Mamma's blond hair was piled high in braids on her head. The sunshine coming through the kitchen window and striking Mamma's head made her hair look like golden sunlight. (1.25)
As for the child narrator, he's in awe of his elder brother, Tom, the Great Brain, while also being somewhat annoyed by him:
I couldn't help feeling before I fell asleep that somehow and in some way I was going to end up with the short end of the deal. And, oh, how I wished I had a great brain like my brother's so I could figure it out. (3.221)
Taken together, we get the sense that for all his wiliness, Tom is ultimately harmless—he's adored both in the moment and in retrospect, making it clear his scheming never goes too far.
The Great Brain centers on three brothers growing up in 1896. It's set in a real time long before our time, making it historical fiction. The boys range in age from seven to almost twelve, and their concerns (friends, school, play, and chores) are typical of children in what today would be elementary to middle school. They haven't reached the age of young adult concerns like identity, romance, and coming-of-age, so we'll place this one squarely in middle grade territory. Finally, we can laugh along with Tom's parents at his antics and shake our heads at J.D.'s naïveté—as a lighthearted book with a happy ending and no great tragedies, it's definitely a bit of a comedy.
No need to have a great brain in order to figure out the significance behind The Great Brain as our book's title. It's Tom's nickname, and though J.D. narrates, the book is Tom's story. So the title is a shout-out to Tom and his great brain.
There's another little detail to this, though. See, Tom pretty much invented his nickname himself—he refers constantly to his "great brain." While J.D. thinks he's pretty much the smartest guy on earth and earnestly calls Tom the Great Brain, Sweyn—who's older—uses the nickname with a bit more irony. Sure, Tom's smart, but Sweyn knows his limits, too.
J.D. tells us that things got "mighty dull" (8.364) after the Great Brain's reformation. How dull? Papa doesn't even bother to find out where Tom is when suspicious things occur. Whoa. Just like that, the Great Brain's mischievous ways slink into retirement.
Or do they?
See, we're thinking the Great Brain's reformation is all a ploy to throw suspicion off of him. After all, there are tons of sequels to this book, and there's no way Tom just twiddles his thumbs in them. For now, though, J.D. at least believes the reformation is genuine.
Adenville is a "typical Utah town" (1.2) of "twenty-five hundred people, of which about two thousand were Mormons and the rest Catholics and Protestants" (1.3). It's "typical"-ness just keeps coming, too.
Adenville fits the stereotype of the American small town: It's reasonably safe and economically stable. Most men have a specific job (butcher, baker, candlestick maker) that determines their function in the community, and most women care for their homes and children. The people aren't rich, but they aren't poor.
Adenville functions as an independent unit that makes you wonder why the outside world exists at all. In The Great Brain, it doesn't, except as that mythical place Papa's inventions come from and where all the boys will eventually go to Catholic school. Because Adenville is in Utah, there is a large Mormon population, but other than some schoolboy fights, religious differences seem to be tolerated well. The major influence of the Mormon Church is apparent in the Z.C.M.I. stores, which are where most people, including non-Mormons, do their shopping.
As 1896, it's "the year the territory became a State" (1.1), so Utah's Wild West days are officially behind it. However, the boys are still fascinated by the idea of "Indians" and have great respect for their uncle, the county marshal. In 1896, life for kids is very different than it is today, which is clear in the types of chores the boys do, the games they play, and the childhood illnesses they get.
The Great Brain is a nice, breezy stroll along the beach. Every now and then we have to look past John D.'s eight-year-old interpretation of events to realize he's being had by his older brother, but overall this bookis a straightforward read. There are no complex motivations or emotions here, and no tricky words to trip readers up.
The Great Brain doesn't beat around the bush. J.D. gets right to the point in his narration, describing whatever's happening in a play by play. Even when he pauses to add his own commentary on events, he doesn't make readers guess about what he's getting at—dude comes right out and says it.
In conversation, the characters rarely use contractions, which sometimes makes their speech sound stiff and more formal than life in Adenville actually is. Check out the following passage for an example:
She looked at us and smiled. "What have you two boys on your minds?" she asked.
"Why is Mr. Harvey digging a hole in our backyard?" Tom asked.
"It is the cesspool for the water closet your father ordered from Sears Roebuck," Mamma answered. (1.26-28)
In case we ever forget we're hanging out in 1896, the dialogue makes sure to remind us with its proper style… even when talking about toilets.
Siblings always share stuff—parents, germs, toys—but the Fitzgerald boys share something kind of unusual: They all have the same middle name. It's Dennis. If you're thinking they must be named after a dearly departed grandfather or great uncle, though, think again:
My brothers and I always called each other by our initials because that was the way Papa addressed us. We all had the same middle name of Dennis, just like Papa. More than two hundred years before I was born, an ancestor of ours named Dennis betrayed six of his cousins to the English during the rebellion in County Meath, Ireland. His father decreed that all male Fitzgeralds must bear the middle name of Dennis to remind them of the cowardice of his son. (1.23)
It seems like a strange thing to want to commemorate, but apparently it works, because none of the boys are cowards. If anything, they love proving how not cowardly they are by beating up other kids in town (though, to be honest, we could see Tom betraying his cousins if the English offered him a penny a head). Additionally, in its unusualness, this shared middle name sets readers up to expect this family to have some quirks to it—enter, the Great Brain.
Early in the book, J.D. receives a real Indian beaded belt from Uncle Mark for his birthday. After J.D. gives Tom and Sweyn the mumps, though, they punish him with the silent treatment, which Tom agrees to call off if J.D. will give him the belt:
The belt was the envy of every kid in town. It was a stiff price to pay.
Tom got up from the bed where he was sitting. I watched him walk to my chair, remove the belt from my pants, and hang it on his chair. (2.121, 125)
Here we see just how much Tom controls the dynamic between him and J.D. He won't just end the silent treatment—he makes his brother pony up for it, taking his prized possession. If ever we doubt that Tom is kind of greedy, the belt makes it clear that he most definitely is. J.D. doesn't benefit at all from this interaction, after all.
On the flipside, months later, in the glow of good feeling Tom gets from helping Andy Anderson, he returns the belt:
I stood there bug-eyed as I watched Tom remove the Indian beaded belt Uncle Mark had given me for my birthday and hold out the belt toward me.
"Here is your belt back, J.D.," he said. "It is a little worn by now but still the only genuine Indian beaded belt in town." (8.358-359)
Tom's return of the belt is symbolic of his intent to reform completely. He's no longer intent on seeing just how much he can benefit from situations, and instead he now knows the value of goodness for goodness's sake.
Youngest Fitzgerald brother J.D. is the narrator, but the subject of his story is the middle brother, Tom, a.k.a. the Great Brain. Generally speaking, the title character is the main character, and that's the case here: J.D. is an active, important character, but he points the lens away from himself and at Tom and his many schemes. Check it out:
My brother very solemnly informed Mr. Kokovinis there were certain things Basil would need, like marbles, to be able to play with other kids, and these things would cost money. Tom generously offered to help Basil get these things. I was bug-eyed as I watched Mr. Kokovinis hand Basil a whole silver dollar. I couldn't help thinking he would have saved time by just giving the dollar to Tom. (5.64)
It's Tom's world; J.D.'s just living in it… and telling readers all about it.
… and you have yourself the Great Brain. He's even named Tom. Our story begins in Adenville, Utah, in 1896, where the three Fitzgerald brothers live with Mamma, Papa, and Aunt Bertha. They fit the "all-American" boy stereotype in that they love to play, fight, get dirty, and drive their parents nuts. The twist is that the middle brother, Tom, is incredibly clever, and he puts that cleverness to good use by figuring out ways to make a penny or two off just about everything life throws his way.
As the school year ends and summertime comes, Tom's schemes grow increasingly lucrative and increasingly morally questionable. By the time September rolls around, he comes up with a plan to get the new schoolteacher fired. The stakes are higher than they've ever been—a man's career is on the line—bust J.D. cracks under pressure, leading Papa to force Tom to confess before the school board.
Tom strikes a deal with Andy Anderson, who has just lost a leg and is desperate to learn how to do his chores and play with the other boys. Tom agrees to put his great brain to work on the problem—in exchange for Andy's new erector set. But after helping Andy get back into the swing of things, when Andy offers up the erector set, Tom finds he can't take it. It's almost Christmas, and perhaps, like the Grinch's, Tom's heart grows three sizes that day. Either way, he realizes that sometimes, doing the right thing is its own reward.
J.D. is sure something is wrong with Tom, but Tom says he just realized it wouldn't be right to take Andy's erector set. He even returns J.D.'s real Indian beaded belt that he swindled him out of months earlier. Tom is all set to follow a new path.
According to J.D., the Great Brain has reformed, so Adenville becomes Dullsville. It's the end of the story, and the end of the book.