The Great Brain Summary
It's 1896 in Adenville, Utah, a town of two thousand Mormons and five hundred Protestants. It's the year Utah becomes a state (not important to this story), the year the Fitzgerald family gets an indoor toilet, and the year Tom D., the middle Fitzgerald brother, realizes that using his Great Brain to help others makes him feel good even if he doesn't make a penny off it.
First, though, he makes a lot of pennies.
Narrated by eight-year-old John D., often called just J.D., the youngest Fitzgerald, The Great Brain is a series of connected episodes about Tom D.'s self-interested schemes. Starting off with a story about the time Tom (a.k.a. "the Great Brain") charges his friends admission to watch a plumber dig a hole in the backyard for a new flush toilet, the Great Brain's exploits only get bigger and more daring:
- He's on the receiving end of John D.'s plan to infect his brothers with the mumps, but though John D. gets him sick, Tom wins in the end when he takes possession of John D.'s real Indian beaded belt as payback.
- He figures out how to find two kids lost in a cave with their dog. And what do you know? It just so happens he has a lot of money riding on the dog.
- He charges poor kids a penny to lick an ice cream spoon. Hey, they can't get ice cream at all at home…
- He makes money by befriending the new kid in town. No really—the kid's parents actually pay him.
See what we mean? The Great Brain is a schemer, for sure, working other people's misfortunes to his own advantage and earning a pretty penny in the process.
In the middle of the Great Brain's shenanigans, a poor Jewish storeowner starves to death without anyone realizing what's going on, prompting the townsfolk to do a little self-reflection on their own selfishness and religious discrimination issues. Unfortunately, they don't seem to do anything more than talk about it.
In the second half of the book, eldest brother Sweyn D. heads off to a Catholic boarding school in Salt Lake City, leaving the Great Brain and John D. behind.
The beginning of the school year brings a few new surprises. The boys' friend Andy Anderson doesn't come to school because he stepped on a rusty nail and now has to have his leg amputated. (Yes, that's what happened when you stepped on a rusty nail in 1896.) Also, there's a new teacher in town, Mr. Standish, who dares to paddle the Great Brain—with an actual paddle. (That's what happened when you acted up in school in 1896.)
The Great Brain swears revenge and orchestrates a plot to convince the town's grown-ups that Mr. Standish is a secret drunk. This is Tom's greatest scheme yet, and it almost works until Papa figures it out and Tom has to confess. He still comes away from the experience smelling like a rose, though, even earning Mr. Standish's eternal gratitude and the respect of his peers all in one go.
In November, Andy returns to school, very glum because he can't play a lot of games or do his chores with his new peg leg. Andy does, however, have an erector set—an erector set which catches the eye of the Great Brain.
You know where this is going, right? Tom agrees to teach Andy to play games and do his chores on one leg in exchange for the erector set. Tom succeeds beyond anyone's wildest dreams, and then, when Andy thanks Tom for helping him get his life back, the unthinkable happens: Tom realizes that he actually likes doing good. In fact, helping others makes him feel good. Whoa. Then, because it's Christmas, he lets Andy keep the erector set.
Anachronism alert: Erector sets didn't come along until 1913, but we'll let Fitzgerald get away with it (source).
The Magic Water Closet
- The narrator, seven-going-on-eight-year-old John D. Fitzgerald, introduces the setting (Adenville, Utah, 1896) and his family.
- There's Sweyn D., who's going on twelve, and Tom D., ten, who is also known as the Great Brain.
- As some of the only non-Mormon kids in town, the Fitzgerald brothers have gotten really good at beating other kids up in the name of tolerance and understanding.
- Adults are present in the form of Mamma and Papa, who is the editor of the Adenville Weekly Advocate. There's also Aunt Bertha (not their real aunt) who lives with them and makes wisecracks.
- For an otherwise smart man, Papa has one weakness: He can't resist buying amazing new inventions, very few of which actually work. He's like an old-timey Muggle version of Arthur Weasley.
- Papa's newest acquisition is an indoor toilet, otherwise known as a water closet.
- The whole family is pretty sure this is going to be a disaster, but the Great Brain sees a way to make a buck—or forty cents, anyway.
- Tom D. starts charging kids a penny to sit on the porch and watch Mr. Harvey, the plumber, dig the hole for the cesspool in the backyard. Yep, this was entertainment in 1896.
- By the way, the boys all have the same middle name, Dennis, and call each other by their initials, as does their dad. Turns out, the original Dennis was a traitor to his family during a rebellion in Ireland a century before the time of the story. So now all the boys are named Dennis to remind them of that time that one Dennis really sold everybody out. Makes sense, we guess, if you want the opposite of being proud of your ancestors.
- Tom keeps this scheme going for the two days it takes Mr. Harvey to finish the cesspool. He even goes to Zion's Cooperative Mercantile Institution, otherwise known as the Z.C.M.I. store, to buy cookies to include in the price of admission. Dude is an entrepreneur.
- When the water closet arrives, Nels Larson, who works at the train station, makes sure everyone in town knows.
- The whole town turns out to see the water closet unpacked, but Mr. Harvey draws the line at watching him install it—a plumber must have some secrets, after all. Papa gets everyone out of the house by telling them they can see a demonstration after it's in.
- So everyone sits around on the lawn while Mr. Harvey works. It's a real event.
- John D. is so embarrassed about the water closet that he runs upstairs to cry on his bed until he hears a gigantic noise.
- Turns out water closets were noisy back in the day—no secret flushes here.
- The adults in town all get a chance to file by and watch the water closet flush, but it's too late for the kids; there's none of this children first business in 1896.
- Tom sees an opportunity in this exclusion and brings J.D. in as a business partner. J.D.'s job is to stand on the street with a sandwich board and bring in business by ringing a cowbell.
- Tom charges the kids to see the water closet until Mamma gets wind of his scheme and makes Tom and J.D. return all the money. Tom is devastated by this financial setback.
Revenge Can Be Sour
- Before vaccines were widely available, life-threatening illnesses were just another part of childhood.
- They're so much a part of life that Mamma has a system for dealing with them: She uses the first child infected to get all the boys sick at once so when they're all better, the family is done with the terrible illness du jour.
- Mamma's system is a real problem for J.D. because, for whatever reason, he never gets sick first, so he never gets the chance to feel better first and make fun of his brothers for still being sick.
- After a bout of the measles, which S.D. gets first, J.D. decides he's going to be first for a change, and when his friend Howard Kay gets the mumps, J.D. sneaks through the quarantine to get infected.
- It takes the mumps a while to show up, but when they do, he's thrilled. Finally, he's first at something.
- Since he can't contain his glee, his family figures out what's up.
- After he recovers first, according to plan, he rubs it in Tom and Sweyn's faces. He's having a grand old time, but then they turn the tables and declare he's getting the silent treatment from them for a month.
- J.D. can't stand this and promises Tom he can have anything he wants if he and Sweyn will lift the silent treatment.
- Tom has been eying the real Indian beaded belt J.D. received from Uncle Mark for his birthday this whole time, and he convinces J.D. to trade it for the end of the silent treatment.
- J.D. reflects on what a wonderful, generous brother he has, and we reflect on the fact that J.D. is not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
The Great Brain Saves the Day
- Summer vacation starts on a positive note as Tom and J.D. come up with a plan to mate J.D.'s dog, Brownie, with Lady, a dog owned by Frank and Allan Jensen, two brothers the same ages as Sweyn and Tom.
- Meanwhile, Sweyn and Tom teach J.D. to swim by throwing him in the ol' swimmin' hole. Like you do.
- This idyllic summer goes south fast, though, when Frank, Allan, and Lady get lost in Skeleton Cave. It's named Skeleton Cave for the skeletons found there, so things don't look good for the Jensen brothers and their dog.
- Like the rest of the townsfolk, Tom is concerned. Unlike the rest of the townsfolk, he's afraid he'll lose money if the boys aren't found, but he won't say why.
- For two days, Uncle Mark leads the search, using seven thousand feet of rope.
- When the grown-ups are ready to give up, Tom puts his great brain to work and figures out how to find Frank, Allan, and Lady.
- Essentially, the plan consists of letting Brownie follow Lady's scent. Lady is in heat, so Brownie is extra-motivated.
- Tom and Uncle Mark take Brownie into the cave alone, and it's a tense few hours.
- Finally Tom emerges victorious, with everyone safe and sound, if a little worse for wear.
- The crowds cheer him all the way home and even stands in the street until he makes a victory speech.
- Feeling extremely jealous over all the attention Tom is getting, especially since Brownie is his dog, J.D. asks about that fortune Tom is protecting and is told to mind his own beeswax.
Abie Glassman Finds a Home
- A few days after the adventure in Skeleton Cave, Abie Glassman arrives in town.
- This is an exciting event for all the kids because Abie is a traveling peddler; he lets the kids take a look through his wagon and gives them jawbreakers at the end. So yeah, they love the guy.
- Abie's also Papa's Sunday dinner guest that week, and Sunday dinners mean ice cream.
- But remember, it's 1896, so you're not going to just go to the store and buy that sweet cold dessert. Nope, you're going to churn that cool deliciousness yourself—or have your three boys do it.
- Tom, of course, has worked out a way to make bank while making ice cream. He whistles right before Mamma pulls out the dasher—the part of the machine that gets covered in ice cream—and Seth Smith and Pete Hanson show up. Every Sunday. Suspiciously.
- Their families are too poor to have ice cream on a regular basis, so Tom generously lets them pay him a penny for the opportunity to lick the spoon. Great guy, that Great Brain.
- After Abie eats dinner with the Fitzgeralds, he and Papa discuss his business prospects. Abie feels he's too old to travel, so Papa suggests he open a variety store in Adenville.
- By the end of the night, the two men have been to see the banker and everything is settled for the opening of Abie's store.
- Later in the summer, the all-American kids of Adenville get a taste of the wider world when Vassillios Kokovinis moves to town.
- Vassillios is the son of George Kokovinis, who owns the local restaurant, the Palace Cafe (no fancy accent marks in Adenville, thank you very much). He and his mother are finally reunited with Mr. Kokovinis, who immigrated five years ago.
- Initially, most of the boys, led by Sammy Leeds, whose father hates immigrants (bigotry was alive and well in 1896), take advantage of Vassillios by forcing him to play the least desirable roles in most of their games.
- This doesn't sit right with J.D., who enlists the help of his brothers to take up for Vassillios.
- Vassillios takes them to his father's restaurant for lunch, where Tom sees a way to help Vassillios (whose name means "Basil" in English) while also making some green for himself.
- First, Tom explains to Mr. Kokovinis that Basil (as J.D. now calls him) will need key items to help him become an all-American kid.
- Mr. K. forks over a silver dollar, and Tom promptly sells a bunch of his old stuff to Basil, reasoning that his stuff is more authentic than anything Basil could buy from a store. Whatever helps Tom sleep at night, we guess.
- The next challenge is more difficult: Sammy Leeds isn't done with Basil and continues to bully him.
- After Tom and J.D. rescue Basil from Sammy and his cronies, Tom determines that Basil must fight and whip Sammy in order to prove that he's not a coward and a mama's boy.
- Mr. Kokovinis is fine with this and agrees to pay Tom a dollar the day Basil whips Sammy.
- Tom works with Basil, but he can't figure out how to teach Basil to fight until Papa suggests that the Greeks are known for wrestling.
- Yeah, this isn't just some kids fighting—it's adult-sanctioned kid-on-kid violence. Apparently nobody used their words in 1896.
- Finally Basil whips Sammy, and Tom gets his dollar.
- Tom swears to be Basil's best friend, which nearly makes Mr. Kokovinis cry with gratitude, though J.D. is sure Tom is thinking about how to turn this to his own pecuniary advantage.
A Wreath for Abie
- We'll say this first: This is an odd chapter. In a book about the mostly harmless exploits of three kids, the chapter where an entire town lets an old man starve to death through inattention is a real downer.
- It's a record hot August, and Lady gives birth to her puppies.
- Meanwhile, Abie Glassman is seen to faint three times. He's also rumored to have a strongbox full of gold pieces.
- Finally, Abie's store is closed for several days, prompting Mamma and Papa to realize something's not right and call Uncle Mark, the deputy sheriff.
- Uncle Mark breaks into the store, where they find Abie nearly unconscious on his bed. Dr. LeRoy declares that he's dying of malnutrition.
- Mamma has them take Abie back to their house, but as soon as she gets him into bed and gives him a spoonful of broth, he dies in her arms.
- Unsure what to do for a Jewish man, the town turns out for Abie's funeral and reads the Christian burial service over him.
- Later, Papa, Mamma, and Uncle Mark discuss the fact that no one paid attention to Abie's declining state because he was Jewish and they assumed Jews could look after themselves.
- They conclude that everyone in town is guilty of Abie's death.
- Tom reveals to J.D. that he knew the strongbox was empty, and J.D. says Tom will be blamed for Abie's death since he knew the truth.
- Tom says all he knew was that Abie wasn't rich, and it's actually the fault of people like J.D., who went to the Z.C.M.I. store, instead of to Abie's store, just to get the penny candy. He swears J.D. to silence.
The New Teacher
- It's a new school year and a new world. We say goodbye to Sweyn, who heads off to a Catholic boarding school in Salt Lake City, and we say hello to a new teacher, Mr. Standish, who makes Viola Swamp look like a holiday.
- Meanwhile, the boys' friend Andy Anderson isn't back in school because he stepped on a rusty nail, got gangrene, and had his leg amputated. And we thought strep throat was bad.
- In this chapter, the Great Brain really raises the stakes with his newest plan to get rid of the new teacher.
- Mr. Standish paddles Tom because he won't reveal who put a frog in a girl's desk and—as we might guess—Tom's not going to take this injustice lying down.
- He fights back by enlisting the help of twelve other kids, plus J.D., to steal whiskey from their parents and plant the evidence in Mr. Standish's belongings, thus proving that Mr. Standish is a secret drinker, which is totally against the rules.
- Just when the school board and all the parents are convinced Mr. Standish is morally unfit to be teaching their children, Papa gets suspicious.
- As the Fitzgerald family sits in the parlor after supper, Papa laments Mr. Standish's fate, saying whoever would lie about something like that is pretty darn awful.
- Tom won't stand for this and starts defending himself.
- J.D., ever the first to crack under pressure, promptly confesses the whole thing.
- Papa marches Tom down to the school board meeting and forces him to confess.
- Even though the plan to get rid of Mr. Standish fails, Tom gets what he wants: no more paddlings and a return to Miss Thatcher's discipline system.
- In fact, Tom comes out of this better than ever—Mr. Standish is grateful to him for confessing and saving his job, and all the kids think he's awesome for stopping the paddlings.
The Great Brain's Reformation
- When Andy Anderson returns to school in November, he has a peg leg—and an erector set his dad bought him in order to get other kids to play with him now that he can't run around.
- Tom's mental wheels start turning about how much money he could make if he owned an erector set.
- Brownie and Lady's puppies are ready to leave their mother, so Tom takes J.D. to choose a puppy for himself.
- Now we find out why Tom would lose a fortune if Lady were lost: Turns out he has a deal to sell the pups to Mr. Monaire, a local sheepman, as quality sheepdogs.
- Tom gets two silver dollars for the male pup he was promised from the litter, and Frank and Allan Jensen each get a silver dollar for the remaining female pups. Wage inequality even extends to sheepdogs, we guess.
- Even though J.D. is happy with his new puppy, he feels like Tom cheated him somehow, but he can't figure out how. Seems like Tom just didn't tell J.D. the whole story about why he wanted to mate the dogs.
- But back to our story about Andy Anderson. After a couple of incidents where all the boys run off to play without him, J.D. finds Andy crying behind the barn.
- Andy has decided to kill himself because he can't do any of the things he used to do, like play with the other boys or do his chores. He overheard his father say he is useless—ouch.
- J.D. agrees to help Andy kill himself (like a true friend), but the two of them together can't get the job done. They try drowning, consider bleeding, and are just about to take a crack at hanging when Tom happens upon them.
- Shocked that Andy really wants to kill himself, Tom offers to put his great brain to work to figure out how to keep Andy from being useless—in exchange for his erector set.
- Tom starts by teaching Andy Indian "squaw" wrestling. Yeah, not the most PC name for a game, but again, 1896. He uses the old trick of making Andy believe he's stronger than he is, which leads to Andy's eventually becoming stronger.
- Then they practice Duck on a Rock, a throwing game.
- Andy asks about his chores—now that he can't do them, he really wants to be able to—so Tom decides they'll spend half of each day on chores and half on games. Of course, Andy needs some practice doing chores, so Tom lets him do his and J.D.'s. for a whole week. Such a team player.
- It all works out for Andy because his father says he is proud of him.
- Feeling that Andy won't be any good as a kid until he can run, Tom decides to teach Andy to run.
- It takes him a week, but he does it, and then he teaches Andy to bat with a peg leg.
- Finally, Tom is ready to show off all his hard work. He gathers all the boys. Andy beats Sammy at wrestling and wins Duck on a Rock; then he wins a race and plays in a baseball game in which he hits a home run.
- That evening, Andy arrives at the Fitzgerald home with the erector set, explaining that he told his parents about the deal and everything Tom did, and they said it was all right.
- Wait for it, because here's the big twist: Tom doesn't take the erector set. The Great Brain actually refuses payment—he says it doesn't feel right.
- J.D. is ready to call the doctor, but Tom says he feels fine.
- Tom even takes off the real Indian beaded belt and returns it to J.D., who still thinks he must be sick.
- No, Tom is just overcome with the foreign sensation of feeling good because of doing good.
- He reforms, but J.D. feels that makes things pretty dull.