It is Boston on the brink of revolution, and though 14-year-old Johnny has little interest in or knowledge of the political turmoil that rages around him, he learns fast and achieves both wisdom and maturity.
Johnny is the son of a woman who was cast out by her wealthy family for marrying a man they did not approve of. Before she died, she somehow came up with money enough to have him bound as an apprentice to a silversmith. Johnny is talented and hard working, but that has only made him proud, self-centered, and a little bit cruel. His hopes of a profitable trade are ended by an accident that leaves his right hand disabled. This tragedy is compounded by character flaws. He falls into despair and almost into a life of crime. His luck turns after he accepts humble employment delivering newspapers and starts to meet leaders of the tax protest. But he is still the boy with a bad attitude. Will these opportunities lead to a reformation of his character, a renewal of his career prospects, and a role in the birth of the new nation?
Johnny’s new employer is involved with a revolutionary government-in-waiting whose meetings are attended by major historical characters: Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and John Hancock. Their actions are described in the gentle terms often granted to rebellious groups who eventually succeed in heading up a government recognized as legitimate by major nations. Forbes has them reacting rather than acting, observing rather than spying, and planning rather than plotting.
When not on his horse doing his deliveries, Johnny borrows books, listens to political debates, and spends time with 16-year-old Rab Silsbee. This printer’s apprentice is everything that Johnny is not. He is modest where Johnny is proud. He is cautious where Johnny is impetuous. He is open-minded where Johnny is judgmental. Rab, along with others, try to guide Johnny in a personal and political renewal. But is Johnny willing to accept help? Will his immaturity prevent him from gaining their trust? He reads their publications so he must know they believe themselves to be part of a great crusade for human freedom. At such a turning point in history, will Johnny act with the powers of progress, or will he be seduced by those who selfishly cling to the past?
A crucial turning point comes where Forbes demonstrates her genius with words accorded to James Otis. After the destruction of tea in Boston’s harbor leads to the closing of the port and the financial ruin of its inhabitants, Otis asks why they need to fight. When disappointed with their response he provides his own:
“That’s not enough reason for going into a war. Did any occupied city ever have better treatment than we’ve had from the British? Has one rebellious newspaper been stopped – one treasonable speech? Where are the firing squads, the jails jammed with political prisoners?... I hate those infernal British troops spread all over my town as much as you do...But we are not going off into a civil war merely to get them out of Boston. Why are we going to fight?”
[One listener says,] “for the rights of Englishmen- Everywhere.”
[But Otis says no,] “Why stop with Englishmen?... The peasants of France, the serfs of Russia. Hardly more than animals now... But because we fight, they shall see freedom like a new sun rising in the west. Those rights God has given to every man, no matter how humble... It is all so much simpler than you think... We fight we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.”
Johnny Tremain has sold in the millions, but overwhelmingly to parents, schools, and libraries. The book could have been as inspirational to young readers as Forbes had hoped, if only its teenage characters had been given the language and emotions of teenagers. Like many coming-of-age novels, it is more inspiring for the adult than for its targeted youth. But that’s a minor detail. Adults need moral motivation too and Johnny Tremain is a monumental work of inspirational literature.
Not part of a series
Mild violence. No disturbing content. P.C.
Available in audiobook format.
Adapted as an 80 minute movie.
Esther Forbes on Wikipedia (click here)