Bertrand R. Brinley lived a fascinating life. I suggest that readers read this article (written by his son) before proceeding. I think that it will help give some insight into the things that I must say. In short, Brinley’s early life was not dissimilar to that of Louisa May Alcott’s. After a peripatetic childhood (I wish that I could take credit for that beautiful word, but the linked article used it and I can’t think of a better one) his family had a farm which played host to brilliant minds and literati throughout Brinley’s formative years. This, undoubtedly, influenced him not only as a writer but also as a person.
The article also details how vibrant, extraordinary, and flashy Brinley’s life was. I cannot help but think that he regularly had healthy doses of adrenaline which pushed him into bigger and more incredible endeavors as time went on. Brinley seemed to live many lives. Always on the go. Always looking for the next exciting thing. Always doing something big.
I have a mixed review of The Mad Scientists’ Club. There are aspects about this series which are brilliant. And then, there are moral blindspots that sort of ruin the fun. This is light years more family friendly than The Great Brain, but it is no Henry Reed either. If read with a discerning parent, I see how this collection of short stories could fuel the scientific imagination of young readers while also offering some important teachable moments. Consistent with Brinley’s scientific career, the science in these stories is quite good. It is very practical and very inventive. As I said, however, the characters often (more often than I like) fail to stay on the moral high ground. Letting a young reader read this without parental support could possibly contribute to the faulty development of the moral imagination.
“…a single idea may be a possession so precious in itself, so fruitful, that the parent cannot fitly allow the child’s selection of ideas to be a matter of chance.” – Charlotte Mason, Home Education – Vol 1, p. 174
While I will reference the series as a whole, it is important to note that I have only carefully read the original book, The Mad Scientists’ Club. In total, Brinley wrote 12 stories and 2 short novels. The first 7 tales are collected in the original book, The Mad Scientists’ Club. The next five stories are printed in The New Adventures of the Mad Scientists’ Club. The last two were printed separately as The Big Kerplop! and The Big Chunk of Ice. Purple House Press reprinted all 12 stories and the two novels into one omnibus edition here. Here is a list of the short stories:
“The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake” (1960)
“Night Rescue” (1961)
“The Unidentified Flying Man of Mammoth Falls” (1962)
“The Secret of the Old Cannon” (1963)
“The Great Gas Bag Race” (1964)
“The Big Egg” (1964)
“The Voice in the Chimney” (1964)
“Big Chief Rainmaker” (1965)
“The Telltale Transmitter” (1966)
“The Cool Cavern” (1966)
“The Flying Sorcerer” (1968)
“The Great Confrontation” (1968)
This series of stories was so highly recommended to me that I purchased the first book from Purple House Press. My son more or less stole it from me and read ahead. Had that not happened, I am not sure that I would have allowed him to purchase the omnibus with his savings. As I said above, I have very mixed feelings about these stories. Once I started reading, I realized that they would make excellent dinner conversation for some time.
Truthfully: not long after he plowed through the books, I started noticing some unexpected behavior from my son. He, like me, is an impressionable reader. He delighted in these stories and adopted a number of the attitudes. Some, very good and very creative. Some, troubling. There is no question that since reading these books he has developed a particular interest in practical mechanics. He is now poring over books like The Boy Mechanic, the Childcraft volumes on mechanics and physics, old issues of Popular Mechanics, and other engineering type books. But, he also appropriated some expensive and off-limits household supplies without asking, he started using some unsavory nicknames for his siblings, he became overly focused on pulling pranks, and he developed new ways to justify dishonest behavior. For my particular son, these books were an invitation to explore both the best and worst aspects of himself.
Just as a I did with my review of The Great Brain, I am going to share a number of photos from the book. I will point out what I see in that text and let parents’ decide for themselves whether or not this is good food for their children’s moral imagination.
The book opens with “Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake.” In this story, the Mad Scientists’ Club creates a mysterious Loch Ness kind of monster. Using a canoe, chicken wire, radio transmitters, etc. they create a monster which floats/swims over Strawberry Lake and, ultimately, that they can remotely operate. For many days, they create a stir in their small town and laugh at the duped townsfolk. When a rival gang of boys attempts to unmask the monster, the boys destroy their creature. The trouble is that this monster goes up in a puff of smoke and the boys walk away scott free without ever having to come clean and apologize for the mess they make. Not too serious, but a troubling start.
In “The Big Egg,” the boys discover what appears to be a bonafide dinosaur egg. Before reporting this find to adults, including their friend who is a scientist at the local college, they spend several days trying to get the egg to hatch first. Obviously this is just quirky science fiction. I would have preferred that the boys had done the responsible thing and involved adults, but sort of par for the course (as I will show throughout) the boys are set on proving that most adults are untrustworthy fools. They do show some respect to certain adults, but too little for my taste.
Because we need a story to help pass the time until the egg hatches, the rival gang finds the egg and steals it. Presumably, they want credit for the discovery. Now, this is another mixed bag. What the rival gang does (and how the MSC responds) is pretty creative. Plaster of Paris, bait and switch, radio transponders, the whole works. Little scientist heaven. But there are speed bumps along the way. First, we discover that the boys have a history of commandeering the barn of an elderly couple because the couple are too old and too feeble to keep chasing the boys out. I am not impressed.
Also, one of the members of the club lies to his buddies and puts two of the members through some humiliating heckling. He does this so that he can have the fun of putting the whole puzzle together in the end. It’s rude, and the narrator says as much. Unfortunately, Henry is the smartest member of the club and never seems to suffer any consequences for his egocentric dealings with others.
In “The Secret of the Old Cannon,” the boys uncover a legend that a local Civil War Memorial cannon was used many years previous by a bank robber to hide $75,000. As it happens, a local mayoral race seems to hinge on the truth or falsity of this claim. The boys sneak around late at night to determine the truth before the adults can do an official investigation. Using their scientific minds and little help from the local medical college, they break a small hole in the cannon and feed a gastroscopic scope into the belly of the cannon and determine that something is certainly within. Next, they set a fire under the cannon and use blow torches on the mouth of the cannon in an effort to heat up the iron so that it will expand and release the cement that is plugging it. Interesting. I am not a fan of kids potentially destroying public property, and a war memorial at that, just so they can outwit adults, however. Is there a reason why they couldn’t have asked permission to do this?
The next day, the boys perch themselves in a tree so they can make fun of and laugh at the adults who are working on the official investigation. When they have had their fun, and the adults have discovered the prank they pulled with the cannon, the boys use the opportunity to humiliate members of the community.
In “The Unidentified Flying Man of Mammoth Falls,” the boys rig up an old store mannequin with amplified radios, use piano rope, and hoist it up on top of a town monument. During a community celebration, the boys use the mannequin to disrupt a parade. The mannequin appears to be a man who is threatening to jump. I simply do not like the topic of suicide, not as a joke nor as something sincere like in The Great Brain, in children’s books. I think that it is tasteless and inappropriate. The mannequin heckles the mayor and the firemen who attempt to rescue “him.” I won’t spoil how it resolves, but a local Air Force colonel seems to put two and two together and laughs at the boys’ prank. Another lost teaching moment and another immature mixed message to send to young readers.
In “The Voice in the Chimney,” a local house is presumed haunted. Through a series of antics, the boys lure the beat cop, the police chief, and the mayor into the house at night. Ultimately, the men are locked into the house while the boys pull off a get-away. As usual, the adults are made to look foolish. Also, as usual, the boys avoid being detected and they received no consequences.
To be fair, as I said above, the science and the creativity are really excellent. There is so much fuel for the imagination in these stories. As an example, the boys explain different scientific techniques/laws/ideas to each other as they are working on their shenanigans. My son became very interested in using a compass after this:
And, I appreciate how they prize each other’s giftedness like this:
I dislike the inherent disrespect towards adults. I think that the ring leader, Henry, is egomaniacal and his love of glory and recognition propels the entire club into some poor decisions. I dislike some of the themes in these stories (suicide and haunted houses, for example). And yet, I think that the series has some unique things to offer to young readers. While I do not love the moral mistakes in MSC, I strongly prefer the Brinley books to more modern samples, like Stephen and Lucy Hawking’s “George” books or the “Nick and Tesla” books. Ultimately, I think that Brinley’s books are far more practical, they are written with superior language, and they are more substantially inspiring.
Purple House Press has done a really beautiful job with the printing of these books. The “50th Anniversary Edition” I have has a lovely dust jacket, a letter from Brinley’s son in the introduction, a copy of Sheridan Brinley’s note in the “40th Anniversary Edition,” as well as a short biography of Bertrand Brinley. It also has the generous original pen and ink illustration from Charles Greer. In terms of book printing, this is very high quality. Gift-worthy.
Our family is enjoying much dinner conversation about these stories. My son took his omnibus edition, and a highlighter, and started re-reading with the intention of discerning the sticky places for himself. I appreciate that there is enough true goodness in these stories that with some intentional parenting he can learn to discern good from bad decision-making in them. These stories would generate excellent book club discussion!