Johnny Tremain



Johnny Tremain

by Esther Forbes

Age: 9+

Interests: American history, history, American Revolution, Boston, war

Houghton-Mifflin: 1943

269 pages

Other books about the American Revolution: Sarah Bishop, The Fighting Ground, Night Journeys, Hope’s Crossing, The Sign Painter’s Secret: Story of a Revolutionary Girl

Johnny Tremain is a young apprentice to a silver smith in Boston. Even though he is only fourteen, he shows such talent that his employer allows him to run the shop. Unfortunately Johnny’s hotheadedness and arrogance prove to be his downfall. His teasing and tormenting of the other apprentices leads one of them to play an unfortunate prank on him, which accidentally burns and disfigures his hand. Unable to continue as a silversmith, Johnny’s prospects are now in shambles – even his plans to marry his employer’s daughter Cilla are abruptly scuttled by her unsympathetic mother. In despair, Johnny appeals to estranged rich relations, but they shun him as well, accusing him of stealing a silver cup and having him arrested. His friends Cilla and Rab see that he is cleared of all charges and Johnny accepts a job delivering newspapers for the Boston Observer, a Whig paper. Through this work he falls in with plotting rebels and plays a part in the Boston Tea Party revolt.

I was not looking forward to reading this novel, expecting an ultra-patriotic sabre-rattler. (The fact that this novel was eventually turned into a Disney film only increased my misgivings.) This book, however, was a very pleasant surprise. Johnny Tremain is an intelligent, vivid depiction of life in Boston in 1773, and its view of war is sober and unromanticized. There is much talk of the noble cause, and fighting for freedom, but the struggle as it breaks out is chaotic and destructive. Johnny’s visit to his antagonistic, Loyalist relatives at the end of the book reveals how far they have fallen, and he derives no joy from their misfortune. His character has developed dramatically from the opening chapters as, humbled by his injury, Johnny matures from an arrogant, careless youth to a thoughtful, principled young man.

The author Esther Forbes wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of Paul Revere, so her knowledge of this time period is deep and balanced. As she puts it herself in that book (Paul Revere and the World He Lived In):

“Most American heroes of the Revolutionary period are by now two men, the actual man and the romantic image. Some are even three men – the actual man, the image, and the de-bunked remains.” 

This is a well-written historical novel of a dramatic period in American history, but also an accomplished coming-of-age story and entertaining adventure. The old-fashioned style of the prose is not difficult, but it may put off readers leery of lengthy books.



5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. katemcginn09
    Oct 19, 2016 @ 13:19:48

    One of my favorite books when I was in grade school.


    • Kim
      Oct 19, 2016 @ 13:22:47

      Hi, thanks for commenting! How old were you when you read it? (It’s always a challenge to come up with appropriate ages for books – I’d like to know if I was in the right ballpark by saying 9 and up!) – Kim


      • katemcginn09
        Oct 19, 2016 @ 13:51:59

        I think I was nine or ten. It was 40+ years ago, but if my recollection is that I was in 3rd or 4th grade. I liked it so much I read it several times. I was a history buff and loved to read biographies about Presidents and others in history.

      • Kim
        Oct 19, 2016 @ 13:56:19

        It’s so great that novels can get children hooked on history! I remember reading Anne Frank’s diary around that age too, and being very moved by it.

      • katemcginn09
        Oct 19, 2016 @ 14:56:35

        Likewise. Florence Nightingale, Amelia Earhart, Benjamin Franklin and on and on!

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