Saturday, June 18, 2011

Papa Married a Mormon by John D. Fitzgerald

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When I was a kid, I devoured John D. Fitzgerald's Great Brain series. I simply could not get enough of Tom, Sweyn, John and the neighbor kids in this fictionalized account of Fitzgerald's boyhood in a small town in Utah just after the turn of the century.

Tom D. aka "The Great Brain" was constantly cooking up plans to swindle other kids, and sometimes adults, out of their hard-earned cash. Whether it be charging everyone to see the first flush toilet in town or sneaking candy into reform school to sell at triple the going rate, there was always an adventure to be found.

I think I particularly loved these books because they reminded me of my dad's crazy stories of growing up as one of five kids out in Palmdale, California (which was the middle of nowhere). My dad was the "Great Brain" of the clan and would create all sorts of elaborate schemes like burying tin cans out in the desert to create a golf course and then charging his brothers and sisters admission into "The Riviera".

I had always noticed in the front of these books that John D. Fitzgerald had written some novels for adults, the first of which was Papa Married a Mormon.  My library didn't own it and so I never got around to reading it.  But now twenty years later, thanks to the magic of eBay, I finally got my hands on a copy.  I loved it!

Fitzgerald creates the small town of Adenville and populates it with a colorful cast of characters.  From the saloon girl with a heart of gold to Bishop Aden, the wise Mormon leader who lost an ear in an Indian attack, you've got 'em all.

Mama at the time of
their first marriage
Papa, same era
Mostly though, he examines the dynamics of a marriage between a Mormon and a Catholic.  Tena was a week shy of eighteen, so they eloped.  That was their first marriage.  They married again in a civil ceremony as soon as she turned eighteen.  Two more ceremonies later ensued--one in the Mormon church and I'm forgetting the circumstances of the other.  They had such a loving marriage and much later, after Papa dies, Mama would stare into space with a gleam in her eye and then excuse herself. . .she was just "borrowing Papa back" for a while. So sweet.

Neither was willing to give up their religion and so they blended their beliefs as best they could.  Unwelcome by either of their congregations because of their mixed marriage, they start holding church services in their parlor and little by little all the outcasts make their way into the Fitzgerald home to sing good church songs and read the Bible.  Even the shy little Jewish shopkeeper, the only Jew in town, starts attending.  At one point he brings in his Jewish hymnal and Mama plays him some of the songs on the piano while he sings with tears in his eyes (he hasn't heard the songs since leaving his home country).  They taught their children both the Catholic and the Mormon tenets of faith and let them decide for themselves what they wanted to do. (Although, there's a really funny story of Papa's sister marching herself out west to try and convert her heathen nieces and nephews to Catholicism. She was no match for Tom.)

There are lots of Tom's shenanigans peppered throughout the novel for good measure, plus we learn about the black sheep of the family, Uncle Will, who lost Mama and Papa's new home in a poker game.  Don't worry, everything turns out okay.

Overly-sentimental?  A bit.
Unlikely? Somewhat.
Makes you smile?  Definitely.

If you ever run across a copy of this in a used book store, buy it. You won't be sorry.

P. S. Audrey M. Godfrey has a really interesting paper on why John D. Fitzgerald is so overlooked in the American literary scene.

<I bought this book on eBay.>


  1. The Great Brain came out when I was in second or third grade. I don't know how I totally missed these books growing up. I finally read TGB about five years ago. Loved it.

  2. I know! It's really time for a re-read. I haven't gone back to them since about third grade. (Love your blog, btw!)

  3. Now this is why I like book blogging; I never would have known about this book or author without your post, and I am so excited to try and find this book :)
    It sounds like something right up my alley.
    Thank you!

  4. I loved The Great Brain books when I was a kid! I wonder if they'd hold up to a reread now that I am an adult. However, I don't know if I ever read Papa Married a Mormon.

  5. @TheBookGirl--I know, I find all my best recommendations from book bloggers--I don't know what I was doing two years ago without this community! You probably won't have too much trouble finding this book. Apparently it was a best seller in the 1950s so there are lots of copies floating around (10 available on e-bay at the moment). Happy hunting! Don't worry, it's totally worth the extra effort to find it.

    @Jenny--I keep meaning to give the Great Brain series a re-read and this book totally reminded me of them, so I'm hoping they do hold up. I'm so sad they're out of print. Luckily, the library still has them.