Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Module 4--Johnny Tremain: A Review


Forbes, E.  (1943). Johnny Tremain. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.

Johnny Tremain is a book detailing the early days of the American Revolution.  Its subtitle is A Story of Boston in Revolt.  It is a bit longer than I remember it, but it is still an excellent story of a young man, brought down a bit by an accident, who finds new purpose as what I would call a Grandson of Liberty.

Johnathan Lyte Tremain, generally known as Johnny, is an orphan who is apprenticed to Mr. Latham, a silversmith with two other apprentices and a large family of daughters.  Johnny is an expert apprentice, so talented that even the legendary silversmith Paul Revere knows of him.  Revere himself has offered Johnny the chance to work with him, suggesting he could go to Mr. Latham, who is showing less and less interest in running his shop, and buying the remainder of Johnny's time.  Johnny, however, feels a certain obligation to the Lathams and believes the family will starve without Johnny to do the work. 

Johnny has been a little arrogant in his way, knowing he's the best at the job.  Mr. Latham keeps warning him that pride cometh before a fall, but Johnny is too sure of himself to take this seriously.  The Lathams get a commission from John Hancock himself.  Mr. Latham has a reputation of not turning in work on time, and everyone except Mr. Latham is concerned about not finishing the work for one of the wealthiest men in town.  With the consent of Mrs. Latham, Johnny works on the Sabbath (which is illegal in Boston at the time); however, Johnny is injured while working.  One of the other apprentices, Dove, wanted to teach Johnny a lesson by handing him a cracked crucible.  Johnny's hand is violently injured and becomes useless for silversmith work or most work really.

As a result, Johnny slips into a terrible depression.  Mr. Latham wants him to stay on as long as he needs, but Mrs. Latham wants him to go and thinks he will eventually slip into crime.  Johnny wanders about Boston, looking for something he can do.  Eventually, he seeks out a distant relative, Mr. Lyte, whom his late mother told him to go to when there was simply no other way out.  He was to show a silver cup that was in Johnny's family that belongs to the larger Lyte family, proving they are related.  Mr. Lyte, however, is a greedy man, and accuses Johnny of stealing the cup.  Only the fact that Johnny had shown the cup to Cilla, one of the Latham daughters, prior to meeting Lyte saves him from the gallows.

Rafe Spall as John Hancock in
Sons of Liberty
Johnny is still in need of work, and eventually he comes to be at the Boston Observer, a newspaper that is passionately Whig (pro-independence from the British Crown).  Rab, the printer's apprentice, is passionately pro-Sons of Liberty but generally reserved and unruffled.  Soon Johnny, who knows little of politics, becomes passionately Whig, him too swept up by the words and thoughts of people like Revere, Hancock, and Samuel Adams, all of whom he's met and has done work for.

Johnny's pro-independence work includes participating in the Boston Tea Party, doing a bit of spy work for the Sons of Liberty, passing messages for the Committee of Correspondence, and serving special punch for Observer meetings, with members so secret their names are not written down.  Finally, the 19th of April, 1775 arrives, and while Johnny was not there when 'the shot heard round the world' was fired, he is there in the aftermath.  Cilla, who was taken as a maid by Johnny's distant relative, the beautiful Lavinia Lyte, and Johnny eventually do fall in love.   Lavinia decides to leave Boston for London (where she was a hit in society), taking both her very ill father and Isannah, Cilla's younger sister who is enchanted by all the pretty things.  Rab is killed at Lexington, and while Johnny is sad, he gets good news from Dr. Joseph Warren: his hand injury is not as bad as he thinks.  With simple surgery, Johnny Tremain may not fully return to silversmithing, but he can fire a musket.

Johnny Tremain I think did a better job in mixing fact and fiction regarding the American Revolution than the recent Sons of Liberty miniseries.  While the miniseries was entertaining, even exciting, the idea of turning the intellectual Samuel Adams into a hot action star, leaping roofs almost Spider-Man like, would have astounded Adams (given he was 43 when he was alleged to be flying through the air with the greatest of ease, something I'd like to do at MY age, let alone at 43).  It might even have made him laugh (though I imagine having him played by a British actor would have angered him).

Johnny Tremain, on the other hand, works as a true historic fiction and a wonderful introduction for children to American history. I think this is because we get to see events through fiction eyes with the real-life characters integrated naturally rather than altering the real-life figures to fit a narrative.  John Hancock for example, went into the Latham shop for business, which would be reasonable.  As Johnny was an apprentice silversmith, it isn't too far-fetched to imagine Paul Revere knowing Johnny by reputation.  Johnny hears Sam Adams speak, and all these things Forbes integrates into the plot easily.  I think because Johnny is fictional, and because the American Revolution is a part of the story, not the whole story itself, Johnny Tremain keeps a better balance overall.

Johnny Tremain is not just about the early days of the American Revolution. It is also about young Johnny's journey from the heights of hope to the depths of despair.  Starting out as a cocky fourteen year old, his injury is debilitating not just physically but emotionally.  His whole identity is wrapped around being a silversmith, of making great work.  Once his hand was crippled, he became crippled.  Forbes doesn't shy away from showing Johnny in despair, who has reached the end of his rope and is struggling to survive and build a new life.  Forbes slowly but surely builds Johnny back up in a realistic manner.  She allows Johnny and even Rab a moment of levity when Rab takes Johnny to a family reunion and both dance joyfully with all the pretty girls.

About the only flaw I can find is that Johnny Tremain felt a lot longer than when I first read it.  However, I still enjoyed the book very much and think boys in particular will like it.  The main character is relatable, there is action, a realistic romance that plays out slowly but believably, and we get introduced to important historical leaping on rooftops required.


The Kirkus Review for Johnny Tremain commented that "the story is slight, the romance slighter."  This I think is not entirely accurate.  I found the story quite rich both in detail and in history.  However, the romance is not a major part of either Johnny Tremain the character or Johnny Tremain the book.   The book is more about Johnny's dual evolution: from the cocky apprentice to the humbled destitute boy and back to a more confident patriot, and as an apolitical figure to a fierce Revolutionary who now takes arms against the British.  The romance is I think secondary.  It provides an entry to the larger Latham story than his own tenuous connection, but I think the romance worked well.  It was quiet, slowly evolving like many romances, and leaves the reader wondering whether Johnny and Cilla will get together.  In short, it was more about the Revolution than about romance, so the idea that the romance storyline was 'slight', while accurate, is I think a bit misguided.


I think a couple of good programs would be to have a silver display or invite American Revolution re-enactors to present.  Since we have the Boston Tea Party part of the plot, I would recommend having an actual tea party, complete with costumes to match Lavinia and Izzy's wardrobe.  It might also be good to invite a band to perform patriotic songs, including the theme heard in Johnny Tremain as the British march out of Boston: Yankee Doodle.    


Book Review: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.  Kirkus Reviews.  Retrieved from

Esther Forbes

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