Does anybody else remember the Great Brain books? When I was in elementary school I lost count of how often I lugged those big hardcover editions home from the library to reread over and over; following Tom “The Great Brain” Fitzgerald, who uses his superior intellectual abilities to swindle neighborhood kids out their pocket money, in addition to solving the occasional bank robbery. Tom’s biggest mark is his younger brother J.D., whom Tom enlists to help with his schemes and tricks into making impossible wagers. Throughout the series, Tom smuggles candy into his boarding academy, rigs the town-wide tug-of-war, and opens his own gambling casino among other escapades in his sleepy world of 1890’s Utah.
In the last chapter of the final book—ominously titled “Thirteen”—Tom becomes a teenager and receives both a raise in his allowance and a talk from his father about the burdens of work and responsibility. To J.D.’s prepubescent horror, Tom begins to take an interest in neighborhood girls and is seen carrying the books of one whom he particularly likes. These new preoccupations swiftly take the place of his youthful shenanigans, leaving poor J.D. miserably bored with Aldenville’s routine.
This would be a disappointing end to the series, but the author lets a ray of hope shine into this dark future. On the final page, Tom once again pulls J.D. aside as he has so many times before to propose a scheme. And J.D—who has repeatedly been left broke, humiliated, frustrated, embarrassed, punished, and bitterly vindictive against his brother—agrees unquestionably to Tom’s plan before he even hears it; for these pains are nothing compared to the ennui awaiting him without the Great Brain to add excitement to his humdrum existence.
And if that’s not the epitome of growing up, I don’t know what is.