“Mama’s Boarding House” sparks childhood memories

I remember the first time I was truly jealous of another person. I was eight years old, and I felt like I had met my match. He had a quick wit and knew how to make money off all of the other kids in town. Tall and lanky, the eleven-year-old boy had me smitten for years. His name was Tom, though most knew him as “The Great Brain.”

Yes, I was in love with a book character. I’m a little bit sad to say this wasn’t an irregular experience in my childhood. First, there was Harry Potter and his oh-so-rugged scar. At about 13 years old, I was swooning over another Harry, but this time from the “Tennis Shoes” book series. Many other literary men came and went, but The Great Brain was and is my first fictional love.

The Great Brain first came into my life in a small, third grade classroom. As elementary classes often do, we all had to follow along in a book that our teacher read to us after lunch. I still remember the pink cover of the original Great Brain book. I also remember the first chapter of the book, in which Tom’s family buys a “water closet” (read: toilet). The water closet creates a large amount of hubbub in the town of Adenville, Utah where everybody else still uses outhouses. Not letting an opportunity go to waste, Tom charges all of his friends a penny to go see the water closet, which gets him into hot water with his parents.

For me, “The Great Brain” wasn’t just a novel assigned in school. It captured my heart and refused to let go, even in my teenage years. It was a rainy day book, a sunny day book, an I-don’t-want-to-do homework-anymore book and everything inbetween. Most of all, it provided  a chance for me to escape to 1904, where life in Utah centered around more simple things than it does now.

My favorite part of the book series was that it was Fitzgerald’s childhood mixed with his imagination. Where he lived, his friends and even members of his family were carefully re-named to protect them. The result left me with an incredible desire to uncover the mystery of author John Fitzgerald’s childhood. For years, I looked through every research method possible to try and find more details behind his life.

I know you’re wondering why I’m writing about “The Great Brain” at the ripe age of 20. In my teenage years, I discovered Fitzgerald also wrote two adult books based on his young adult years in Southern Utah. I found one of them, “Papa Married a Mormon” at my local library, but the sequel, “Mamma’s Boarding House” was out of print and nowhere to be found. To buy the collectible online was hundreds of dollars, so the desire to delve into the book’s pages stayed on hold for a while.

I don’t know why it took me nearly two years to realize that USU’s library might hold a copy of the book. Just over a week ago, I was walking through the library, and I finally thought to check. Much to my surprise the library had two copies — one in special collections and one for check-out.

After years of waiting, last week I again had the opportunity to be thrown back into the world of Adenville and the Fitzgeralds. Despite how busy my schedule was, I couldn’t “Mama’s Boarding House Down.” When I was 10 years old, my mother would catch me reading at 2:00 a.m. on a school night and chide me for not sleeping. She would have been doing a lot of chiding, because after my classes, homework and newspaper responsibilities were over, I again found myself swaddled in a blanket, anxiously turning pages to see what story would be told next. Enjoying a book you love is like relishing in your favorite food. It’s filling, and even when stuffed, you want to take in a few more bites.

“Mamma’s Boarding House” is based John’s mother Tena taking in Boarders after her husband passes away. Even in the early 1900s, running a boarding house attracted people of certain reputations. Each of Mama’s borders has a story to tell, and Fitzgerald brings them to life spectacularly.

The book also provides a thrilling narrative of Fitzgerald’s “Uncle Will,” a saloon owner and all around rebellious westerner who is soft at heart. His story, which began in “Papa Married a Mormon” is one of heartbreak, sacrifice and finding love late in life. Fitzgerald’s flashbacks to the days of Will’s involvement with bawdy miners will leave you chuckling.

If you’re looking for a book series to get lost in this summer, consider picking something from Fitzgerald. Though many of his books are targeted toward children, as an adult I still find them timeless. His adult books will especially appeal to those who are interested in Utah history or history of the West in general.

I wanted my last column to go out on a good note. There were a number of books I could have chosen, but in the end I knew that it would end up being The Great Brain. After many internet searches, I realized I’m not the only one who grew close to the swindling smart-alec. Children around the country, and even around the world, have treasured the Utah stories like I have. If you get a chance this summer, take a journey with the Fitzgeralds. I know I will at least a few times.


– allee.evensen@usu.edu


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