Tuesday, July 09, 2013

The Great Brain and America

Miriam took a break from Harry Potter after finishing book 3. Now she's reading The Great Brain series. I read the first chapter aloud to her and Magdalena so I could explain more about the setting (southern Utah) and the time period (the 1890s) and some of the difficult vocabulary (plumb loco, swindle, whip any kid in town, lick someone in a fight, Indians, etc.).

 In 2013, we are doubly removed from the events of the book - they took place in 1896, which is long ago, and the book itself was published back in 1967. As a result, you have to read the book with two thinking caps on: interpreting the events that took place over 100 years ago and how that fits in with your life experience now; and interpreting those same events through their 1967 interpretation. That makes for tough reading for a 7-year-old, which is partly why I got her started on the first chapter.

Which, by the way, is about the time the author's dad installed the first indoor water closet Adenville had ever seen, and what a spectacle it became. As we read, I found myself pausing almost every paragraph to explain to the girls more about the context for this story. I was enchanted by how much this book was teaching my kids about America, and life in the olden days in general. We talked about what they used before water closets, and why people were concerned that the water closet would stink up the house, and how much a penny used to be worth (that's what The Great Brain charged for admission to see the WC), and the code of honor that existed among small children in those days. This involved such concepts as crybaby, tattletale, mamma's boy, and other gems. I also liked showing them how hard kids worked in those days, and how hard they played.

Also during the course of chapter one, we took a little field trip together to the bathroom. I took the lid off the tank and showed the girls how the flushing mechanism worked. We compared what we could see in our bathroom in 2013 with what the author described in the book about the first indoor water closet in 1896. They were riveted.

A later chapter in The Great Brain told the story of how the author and his Great Brain brother made a "bona fide American boy" out of Basil, a recent Greek immigrant to their town. There's a scene in that chapter where some of the kids in town play cowboys and Indians, with Basil as the unwitting cowboy who gets tied to a tree by the Indians. Then they dance around him and prepare a fire in which it appears they are about to burn him alive. Understandably, Basil, who doesn't speak hardly a lick of English, is terrified by these strange American boys and their strange American games. Wow, did that ever provide tons of discussion fodder for the girls and me. We talked about how it feels to move to a foreign country, and how it takes time to understand the language and how things work and the way kids play. We talked about times when they've felt a little like Basil did, struggling to adapt to a new home in a new country. We also talked about how we can help each other acclimate, or help others who have just moved here. Of course, they were also intrigued by what a "bona fide American boy" consisted of in 1896.

Who knew The Great Brain could teach us so much about our American heritage, and so much about our lives here? In some ways, I feel like the things my kids are learning through these books are the things I picked up through cultural osmosis during my own childhood. I'm glad to have an entertaining way to teach them more about America, since they won't be getting any of that at school here.

Plus, seriously, these books are so great. If you or your kids haven't read them, give them a try.

8 comments:

Alanna said...

I loved these book as a kid! My favorite was Me and My Little Brain. I think you've mentioned before on your blog, but since I can't remember for sure, I just have to make a plug for his grown-up book (um, but not in a dirty way!), Papa Married a Mormon. You have read and loved that one, too, right???

Bridget said...

Yes, it's one of my all-time favorites!

Myrna said...

I love the Fitzgerald books! Will have to suggest these to Nancy for read-alouds with her girls!

Kathy Haynie said...

I read the Great Brain books as a kid before I was Mormon. Add another filter. :) Wonderful stories. I love the way you delve into the stories and their context with your girls.

When I was a girl, I inherited a collection of Nancy Drew books that had been published in the 1930s. Lots of racism to read through. It was during the time of the Civil Rights movement, a rich time to think through the context and the implications for a changing time. I lived in a very UN-diverse community - small town on California's central coast - so it was all quite educational. I adored Nancy's spunk and cleverness, but even as a young girl I caught the difference in tone toward African Americans. (Other books I read in middle school - written/published/set in an earlier time with rampant racism - were the books by Booth Tarkington. The stories themselves were LOL funny at the time to me, but would probably be pretty sobering if I reread them now.) I am not promoting these texts, only reflecting on my own childhood reading experience of filtering different time settings and cultures - as a part of my growing up education.

Kathy Haynie said...

I mean that I was reading those earlier Nancy Drew books during the Civil Rights movement - I grew up during the 1950s and 60s.

Suzanne Bubnash said...

Wow, you got a ton of mileage out of The Great Brain so far! What a great series it is, and along w/ Papa Married A Mormon, they all make my favorites list.

I think my childhood had a little more in common w/ the Great Brain's than with my own grandchildren's. We were able to roam freely and explore, to a point (parents would say "go outside and don't come in until dinner), which can't happen anymore. Parents of the past were less inclined to be involved in childrens' affairs. We mostly solved our own problems and parents stepped in only in life or death situations.

Cait said...

Haha, The Great Brain was banned in my 5th grade class because one of the other Mormon girl's mother called the teacher and said it was disparaging to Mormons... so I've only read the first chapter.

Bridget said...

That is a really bizarre complaint.

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