Johnny Tremain

 

 

75 Years and Counting!

(A Diamond Anniversary Worth Celebrating)

 
 
Forbes, Esther. Johnny Tremain: A Story of Boston in Revolt. Illus. by Lynd Ward. Seventy-Fifth Anniversary edition introduced by Nathan Hale. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018. 
 
The current year, 2019, marks the diamond anniversary of Esther Forbes’ Newbery Medal (1944) masterful novel, Johnny Tremain. The book has never been out of print and every year at least 50,000 students read the novel in summer literacy programs. Johnny Tremain is one of the finest historical novels every written for children and young adults. It perfectly fits the criteria for fine historical fiction. The plot, characters, and settings ring true. The theme of freedom and liberty for every person regardless of nationality or station in life fits perfectly with emotions of the patriots of Boston in the 1770s and is universal. When Johnny Tremain was published in 1943, young readers were certainly aware that much of the world was at war and that freedom and liberty were once again greatly imperiled. The novel’s historical accuracy is unquestionable. Author Esther Forbes wrote both adult histories and historical fiction prior to conducting her exhaustive research and brilliant writing that resulted in her first masterpiece, Paul Revere & The World He Lived In (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1942) for which she won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history. She was also the first woman ever to be inducted into the American Antiquarian Society. In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech (Miller, 1955), Forbes noted that while writing her 500-page biography of Paul Revere she became fascinated with the lives of young apprentices that were so common in the 17th-Century American Colonies. Frequently, she wanted to digress from the strict guidelines of writing history to fictionally explore the lives of such youths, but she remained steadfast to responsibility as a biographer to use facts only in the account for her full-life portrait of silversmith and patriot Paul Revere. Using the incredible source material gained through years of New England historical research, she wrote her first-ever children’s book, Johnny Tremain, in 1943. 
 
Johnny Tremain weaves together dynamic fictional characters with real-life colonial figures such as Paul Revere, Josiah Quincy, Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Dr. Joseph Warren, James Otis, and William Dawes as well as British notables Governor Thomas Hutchinson, General Thomas Gage, and Colonel Francis Smith. 
 
When the novel begins in Boston in 1773, the character of Johnny Tremain is in the fourth year of his apprenticeship with the elderly and pious silversmith Ephraim Lapham. At the time apprentices were little more than short-term slaves. Terms of indenture ranged from seven to ten years. Apprenticeships were the primary means for young boys to learn a trade or profession. Paul Revere himself was an apprentice to his own father who was a master silversmith while Benjamin Franklin served as a printer’s apprentice to his elder brother. Apprentices lived in the homes of their masters and very frequently successful ones married the daughters of their masters. Young boys began apprenticeships to learn such trades as gold- and silversmiths, bakers, printers, ship builders, candle makers, cutlers, and even trained in the professions of law and medicine beginning as early as ten years of age. Forbes especially wanted her youthful readers to understand that in the early years of the American Revolution childhood was of a remarkably short period of a lifetime. She also wanted readers to appreciate the historical fact that young people played crucial roles in events that would shape American history. 
 
Johnny Tremain is essentially historical fiction that expertly weaves together two important historical events, the Boston Tea Party in 1773 and the Battle of Lexington and Concord in 1775. The novel opens in Boston in 1773. Johnny is an extremely promising silversmith apprentice of fourteen years of age. An older and jealous fellow apprentice plans a joke that he hopes will embarrass Johnny who is working illegally on the Sabbath in order to earn a wealthy commission for his master. The consequence is a horrible accident that severely burns Johnny’s hand and ends any hopes he has of becoming a silversmith in his own right. In despair Johnny approaches a wealthy English merchant, Jonathan Lyte, with a silver christening cup bequeathed to him by his mother. Rather than accepting Johnny as a member of the wealthy Lyte family, Jonathan Lyte has Johnny arrested and charged with the theft of the valuable silver cup. In the interim following the young hero’s crippling accident he has become best friends with Rab Silsbee who helps print his uncle’s radical newspaper, The Boston Observer.  Rab not only helps Johnny to be found innocent of the theft charge, he also brings Johnny into membership in the Sons of Liberty and introduces Johnny to an easily spooked  horse named Goblin. Johnny tames Goblin and becomes a courier of the newspaper to outlying towns and villages. Johnny even delivers messages of British troops to neighboring hamlets and farms. Rab and Johnny live in the attic of the office of The Boston Observer that also serves as the secret meeting place of Boston’s key revolutionary adult leaders that include Paul Revere and Samuel Adams. At the pinnacle of the crisis of 1773, three British ships sit in the Boston harbor each loaded with tea that carries with it a hated tax. Samuel Adams speaks at a political gathering at Old South Church. His words, “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country” are the signal Johnny needs to communicate to Rab and fellow Sons of Liberty to disguise themselves as Mohawk Indians, board the British ships, and destroy the hated tea. 
 
The severe penalties imposed on Boston following the tea party lead to the ever-growing tension between England and the Massachusetts Colony. Youths such as Rab, Johnny and Cilla act as spies and report the behaviors and movements of British troops headed by General Thomas Gage to revolutionary leaders. The growing tensions form the second half of the novel the climax of which is Johnny’s role in bringing about the famed midnight ride of Paul Revere on April 18, 1775 and the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the first shots fired to initiate the American Revolution. Because the coming revolution will most greatly impact the lives of young people and as yet unborn Americans, Forbes closes her novel with Johnny’s prophetic words, “A man can stand up…”  His words are the justification of revolution so that all of humanity might gain the right to stand up as free people.
 
In addition to writing an award-winning and thrilling historical novel, Esther Forbes serves as role model of a twice-exceptional person for today’s readers. That she was gifted as both a novelist and a historian is beyond question. However, her path to success and fame was not easy. Author Gary D. Schmidt (2011) notes her personal struggles with a severe learning disability.
 
“She had to work her way through dyslexia, a condition that made it extremely difficult to draft any writing. She rarely spelled a word the same way twice. Her punctuation was a series of dashes — and that’s it.” And, then there is her temperament. “She refused to accept suggested changes to her story, she refused to clean up the manuscript with proper punctuation, and she refused to even bother with standard spelling.” 
 
Walt Disney filmed Johnny Tremain in 1957 as a two-part television program and then released the whole as a live-action feature film in theaters. The largely faithful cinematic adaptation of Forbes’ novel has recently become available in DVD format. 
 
Activities for Teachers and Home Schoolers
 
Although fictional female characters appear in Johnny Tremain, the young male apprentices of Boston in the events leading up to the American Revolution are the heroes of the novel. Encourage students to read the novel with an eye for the role Cilla Lapham plays. She is a colonial spy! Ask students to write a new chapter for the novel that is devoted to Cilla’s personality and activities.
 
Johnny Tremain is an excellent novel for giving today’s young people a double historical perspective. Describe the roles of young people in Boston in 1773 and 1775. Then, research what life was like for readers in 1943 during World War II when Johnny Tremain was first published. The latter were probably planting victory gardens, collecting metal for scrap drives, and living in homes that followed mandatory “black out” laws at night. Their parents had ration books for each child that included everything from sugar to clothing to gasoline and tires for the family car so youths could go to Sunday School or Synagogue, and so very much more. Write a short chapter intended for a new historical about the lives of youths in 1943. 
 
 
References
 
Miller, B. M., Ed. (1955). Newbery medal books, 1922-1955: With their author’s acceptance papers,  Esther Forbes (pp. 261-267). Boston: Horn Book.
 
Schmidt, G. D. (2011). Introduction (n.p.). Johnny Tremain. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.