John D. Fitzgerald is best known for his series of books about “The Great Brain.” Though he himself was not born until 1906, these episodic tales, set in Utah in the late 1890’s, are loosely based on family members and events from his own childhood. In these works, as in the fictionalized story of his family (Papa Married a Mormon) written for adults, it is apparent that the author uses his own memories as a vehicle for conveying a message as well as a platform for lively storytelling. John Robert Sorfleet in Twentieth Century Children’s Writers says: “The strengths of the series are its portrayal of close-knit family and community life in the late 19th century American west, its ecumenical aspects, its very American value system, and its humor—deriving partly from the American tall tale…. In addition, Fitzgerald treats childhood with respect, as an arena of life where good and evil are present and where real choices must be made as part of the growing-up process, but also an arena where courage, intelligence, and ethical action, in the end, prevail.”
In Brave Buffalo Fighter, a more serious book, Mr. Fitzgerald even more dramatically presents this “arena where courage, intelligence, and ethical action” prevail. Francis Phillips in an unpublished review echoes Mr. Sorfleet’s comment on Fitzgerald’s treatment of childhood when she writes of Jerry Parker:
At first glance he seems an unusually mature and brave boy, resourceful and excelling in the skills needed for the wagon train. But as the story unfolds we see a certain “charisma” surrounding him—he is spiritually gifted beyond the ‘normal’ circumstances of the story. When he brings Jeb, the outcast “poor white trash” boy in to the circle of his friends, the boy’s mother says, “God bless you,” noting the Christian act of kindness and recognizing that it means her family are not pariahs. Jerry also spends his hard-earned money buying candy for all the children. Later he risks the disapproval of Captain Reagan by breaking the camp’s laws in order to save the life of Jeb’s father. It is this act which leads to the heartbreaking decision, freely made, to leave his family and culture forever….This is a boy touched by grace—not the obvious graces we see in the lives of the Christian saints, but just as saintly in its own way. The book shows beautifully and economically what one individual life can do, how our actions can affect others, how we are given free will to choose to be heroic or not.
John D. Fitzgerald died in 1988 after many years spent as a journalist, musician, and free-lance writer.