Posted in Fiction

Johnny Tremain

I think I first read Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes when I was in sixth grade.  While I remember enjoying it tremendously, it became one of those books in which, years later, I could not remember much of the plot.  Somehow it ended up on my bookshelf over the last few years.  I may have found it at a used book sale.  The novel won the 1944 Newbery Medal, an award given to a book each year for its contribution to children’s literature.  As I have already discovered and am reminded in re-reading Johnny Tremain, many children’s books, especially the Newbery winners, are just plain good literature whether for children or adults.  Jay at Bibliophilopolis has also re-read this book with me.  I’m looking forward to hearing what he has to say about it.

I remembered that the novel involved a teenage boy who lived during the beginning of the American Revolution.  Once I started reading, I remembered that, as an orphan, Johnny apprenticed as a silversmith.  Other than this, the book seemed brand new to me, but I enjoyed it this time around as much as I did when I was a kid.

Both as a kid and an adult, the American Revolution has fascinated me probably more than any other historical event.  Getting to be “in the room” with Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock, especially from the point of view of a kid, only served to intensify this fascination.

I like Johnny Tremain because there is much about him that is not likable.  He is not naturally altruistic or loyal.  He is a little arrogant and quickly gets annoyed with people.  An accident cuts short his apprenticeship, basically leaving Johnny on the street.  Through tenacity and determination, he manages to survive and become a border at The Boston Observer, a local newspaper publishing anti-British opinions.  As a border, he becomes involved with The Sons of Liberty.

I appreciated the descriptions of the Observer’s printing press and the travelings on which Johnny embarks to get the newspaper’s delivered.  Our current world’s internet has brought us a long way from setting print and letting newspapers dry and riding a horse for three days to get information to the rest of the world.    The Observer’s owner, known to Johnny as Uncle Lorne, a timid man by nature, bravely continues making his community aware of the wrongs committed by the British, even in the face of execution:

…yet timid or bold he would go on printing, begging the people of Massachusetts to wake up and resist this tyranny before it was too late.  He would print until he had not a sheet of paper left to print on, or until the very day the gallows was set up for him.

The story does not take the reader as far as that Fourth of July in 1776.  It’s difficult for me to decide which historical moment proved to be my favorite – either Johnny’s participation in the Boston Tea Party or the anticipation and excitement in the build-up to Paul Revere’s famous ride.

Perhaps the most moving part of the story came toward the end when the arrogant Johnny Tremain, on the brink of becoming a soldier for the colonies, takes a look at the world around him:

So fair a day now drawing to its close. Green with spring, dreaming of the future yet wet with blood.

This was his land and these his people.

The cow that lowed, the man who milked, the chickens that came running and the woman who called them, the fragrance streaming from the plowed land and the plowman.  These he possessed.  The skillful hands of the unseen gunsmith were his hands.  The old woman throwing stones at crows who cawed and derided her was his old woman – and they his crows.  The wood smoke rising from the home-hearths rose from his heart.

With everything going on in the world today, I sometimes forget that I still feel the same way Johnny Tremain did.

4 thoughts on “Johnny Tremain

  1. Hi Dale,

    Great post! I finished my re-read Saturday and will be working on my post here this morning. Hopefully I’ll get something done before I have to dash off to the office.

    I was surprised by how much of the plot I had forgotten too, but there were certain passages I remembered quite well. I had forgotten all about the Lytes and Miss Lavinia Lyte and Johnny’s infatuation with her. The quotation you included is great. I think it helps point out that, in addition to being about the revolution, the book is really about growing up…

    I agree that, even though this book won an award as a “children’s” book, it works well for all ages. I’m guessing that when I first read it as a kid it may have been the most “adult” book I had read up to then.


    1. Jay, I also recall that it seemed to be a more adult book when I read it as a kid. I think it was one of the longer books I had read up to then, too. I vaguely remember thinking “is this going to be too long?” But within a few pages, I’d been pulled into the story.

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