After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the United States was propelled into World War II.
The following day, Esther Forbes started writing Johnny Tremain. Published in 1943, this timeless historical novel for young adults is imbued with the spirit of the times: balancing a sense of crisis, and a mournful recognition of the inevitability of sacrifice, against the hopeful belief that honesty, hard work, and pride in country and community will see things through. It’s no wonder that the book won the prestigious Newberry Medal in 1944, or that it remains one of the best-selling children’s books of all time. Yet Johnny Tremain is much more than a period piece. Unsparingly realistic, yet deeply compassionate, it offers compelling lessons for our troubled times.
When the novel opens, fourteen-year-old orphan, Johnny Tremain, is working as an apprentice silversmith; it is summer in Boston; 1773. Ambitious and energetic, he is determined to rise above his humble surroundings by carrying out commissions for the likes of wealthy John Hancock, or potentially working for master silversmith Paul Revere. Though vastly talented, Johnny is sometimes his own worst enemy. Though he is innately kind and generous, he can also be rude, arrogant—even a bully. Like any adolescent—any human being—he’s full of contradictions, but whatever else he does, we sense–and identify with–his inner goodness, and root for him to succeed.
Just as Johnny seems ready to set forth on the path from rags to riches, a tragic accident dashes his hopes of becoming a professional silversmith, or any other kind of skilled employment. In an instant, his pride and hopes are crushed, and his enemies from the past swoop around him. Unable to find work, he clings to a legacy left to him by his deceased mother: a silver cup that testifies to his birth connection with a wealthy mercantile family, and its patriarch, Jonathan Lyte. This rich merchant and his haughty daughter, Lavinia, not only reject Johnny’s approach; they also try to swindle him.
Desperate, Johnny turns to sixteen-year old Rab Silsbee, a member of the underground Patriot movement, the Sons of Liberty, and a printer’s apprentice with a radical anti-British newspaper. Rab rescues Johnny from a legal predicament with the Lyte’s and brings his new friend into the inner circle of liberty-loving Whigs: men like Hancock, Revere, Sam and John Adams, James Otis, and Joseph Warren. Johnny is given a beautiful horse named Goblin, taught how to ride, and he becomes a valuable messenger for the Whigs as they protest British rule; he even participates in the Boston Tea Party of December 16, 1773. Finally, he belongs.
The Tea Party leads to punitive measures from the British; the so-called Intolerable Acts close the port of Boston, siege the city, and bring on British control of the city.
As she does throughout Johnny Tremain, Forbes avoids cliché in her description of these historical events. Though tough and sometimes cruel, the Redcoats are every inch as human as the Boston Patriots. As a British medical officer confesses to Johnny, the Redcoats are there only to do their jobs—eager to avoid fighting– and yearning to return home as soon as possible. It’s men like Sam Adams, who push the confrontation into open conflict, over principles that Johnny struggles to understand.
As the situation in Boston slides ever closer to war in 1774-1775, Johnny Tremain matures, but not always on a steady arc. Priscilla Lapham and her younger sister Isannah, daughters of the silversmith with whom he had once apprenticed, seek Johnny’s love–and merit it too– but he isn’t always worthy of them. Only in fits and starts does his selfishness disperse, allowing him to sense and respect the feelings of the people around him. But there’s risk along the way. Johnny’s growing sense of compassion allows him to sympathize with–and befriend–some British soldiers and officers, and to even look kindly on a romantic liaison between one of Priscilla’s sisters and a gruff British sergeant.
As the shadows of war gather in the spring of 1775, Paul Revere and the other Whigs seek to employ Johnny as a courier and spy against his British friends, the boy’s as-yet imperfect character is tested. On April 19th, The Shots Heard ‘Round The World, ring out from Lexington Common, to the road from Concord, plunging Johnny into the center of the crisis; he works for Revere to alert the Minutemen. Afterwards, he endures devastating personal loss, but also recognizes his need to sacrifice self so that, as Otis declares, “a man can stand up”—now, and for generations to come.
Johnny Tremain represents the best of historical fiction. Unlike so many other authors, Esther Forbes displays a passion for the past inflamed by profound love and sympathy for humanity. Her writing recognizes no gap between the past and present. Instead, she treats the voices of yesterday like a direct neighbor, and assumes there are direct lessons for today. The events of history, like those of the present, are inscrutable. There are no easy divisions of good and bad, and rarely–any happy endings. But, looking at history through Forbes’s view, people possess the power to choose between right and wrong—regardless of their difficulties. This was true after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and it remains so.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.