Johnny Tremain (1943)

by Esther Forbes

Johnny Tremain is known as a children’s book, but don’t let that keep you from reading it. A Newbery Award winner, it is extremely well done on several scores. As history, it recreates pre-Revolutionary Boston, the everyday life and the reasons for revolt. As a coming-of-age tale, it relates a cocky boy’s gradual maturation. Judged simply as a novel, it has vivid characters, an eventful plot, and brisk writing.

The book opens in 1773, when the fictional Johnny, age 14, is apprenticed to a silversmith and shows a great talent for the trade. But that career path is cut off when Johnny’s hand is burned and disfigured by molten silver. Johnny, who had been conceited about his silversmithing genius, must find another occupation. He takes work as horseback-riding dispatcher that puts him in touch with the Sons of Liberty, and he becomes a player in the events leading to war.

Forbes didn’t write a black-and-white story of heroism. Johnny isn’t transformed overnight from show-off to heroic patriot. He undergoes his own challenges and losses and, with new humility, learns from those around him. Patriots like Samuel Adams and John Hancock have flaws; the English are not all villains.

Many people first read Johnny Tremain as schoolchildren. Those who revisit the novel as adults often report they find it even more rewarding.


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