Ever since I was in elementary school I have had a fascination with the Great Brain series of books by John Dennis Fitzgerald. I think it all started in 5th grade when a friend suggested the books to me. What would compel young boys in East Los Angeles to read a book about Mormon and Catholic kids in Utah during Utah’s Wild West period? I’m still not sure, perhaps it is the love between Mama and Papa; perhaps it is the hilarious and touching issues of religious diversity; perhaps it is the draw of a family that sticks together no matter what. I don’t know. All I know is that I grew up with the Great Brain and his family. His family became my family. They were my companions as I moved to Utah. The only part of Utah that felt at all like home for the first few months was the one I imagined existed somewhere in Adenville, Utah, home of the Great Brain. Those characters were my Utah companions until I found real Mormon kid companions of my own.
Around the time I moved to Utah I also found out that there was a trilogy of books featuring the grown up characters in the Great Brain series: Papa Married a Mormon, Mama’s Boarding House and Uncle Will and the Fitzgerald Curse. I couldn’t wait to read them and have read the latter two dozens of times each but I’ve read Papa Married a Mormon over a hundred times. At times in my youth, Mama and Papa were the best examples of love and stability in parents that I had ever personally witnessed. As a result, I am trying to start my own tradition similar to the Fitzgeralds in the book, the passing down of a middle name to the males in the family. I gave both my biological sons the same middle name as mine and hope they will do the same with their sons. And, for some strange reason, all my children have taken to calling me Papa instead of Dad.
Last year my youngest came home during 5th grade beaming about the Great Brain series that her teacher was reading to her; I knew it was time to revisit my old friends in Adenville, Utah. For those of us who love the series of books there is a mystery that has always been somewhat solved, but not to full satisfaction.
The question remains, just where in Utah did the book really take place, because Adenville, Utah has never existed? In other words, what real town did the author use as the basis for all the hijinks and drama? In the series and in the adult books Adenville is in southern Utah, next to the fictional mining town of Silverlode. The current city of Leeds, Utah sort of fits because it is in southern Utah, named after an early pioneer, and is directly next to a mining town named Silver Reef, which had a Catholic Church in the late 1800s. However, the author has been reported to have grown up, at least part of the time, in Price, Utah. After searching for more clues the best theory is that the author, ever so wonderfully, combined the 1800s diversity found in the mining camps of southern Utah with the diversity found in the mining city of Price, Utah to create Adenville.
To make this theory come alive to my daughter, she and I drove to Leeds, Utah and the old mining town of Silver Reef and used our reader’s imagination to discuss possible geographical connections to the books. We strolled through the Catholic and
Protestant cemeteries, the old boardwalks, the Wells Fargo building, the site of the old Catholic church, and just imagined ourselves with the characters. The next weekend we drove to Price, Utah to put the finishing piece on our quest — finding where the real Mama and Papa are buried. We strolled through the Price cemetery and discussed the diversity in the tombstones, the Masonic symbols, the miners, and the children. Finally, we found them — Mama and Papa resting in peace, side by side. More alive than ever.
Axel Donizetti Ramirez is Associate Professor of Teacher Education in the School of Education at Utah Valley University.