Historical fiction is a tricky thing. Is it more important to make it slavishly accurate in every detail, or to make it as relatable as possible to its modern readership? Books that err in the first way tend to be dry, and those that err in the second way tend to be not very historical. Johnny Tremain is as close to the perfect mix as we've seen, at least in terms of children's literature.
Esther Forbes, a historian and novelist, certainly knew the world of pre-Revolutionary Boston—after all, she'd written the definitive, Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Paul Revere one year before Johnny Tremain. But she also wasn't above using occasional anachronisms to bring the text alive (for instance, some of the boys in the book use the not-yet-coined word "guys").
At the beginning of the novel, Johnny Tremain is an immensely skilled apprentice silversmith of 14. His master is an old Puritan who spends more time reading his Bible than working in the shop because of his age, but it's Master Lapham's daughter-in-law that makes Johnny's life truly miserable, at least from his perspective.
Which isn't a very wise or mature perspective. Johnny looks down on everybody, and quite frequently tells people so, particularly the daughters of his mistress and the two apprentices with whom he lives and works. In a turn taken straight from Greek tragedy, Johnny's hubris actually ends in his downfall, and the young man finds himself on the streets without an apprenticeship and maimed so badly that the hope of other work is a pale ghost.
Providence, however, not being finished with young Tremain, leads him to the Boston Observer, a Whig newspaper used to voice the concerns of the Colonists and their increasing combativeness with England and the King. Soon upon entering this world, Johnny is caught up with the likes of Paul Revere, Sam Adams, John Hancock, and other leading lights of the Revolution.
Johnny's adventures take him from the backalleys of Boston, through a court case for robbery, into the back rooms of the rebel leaders, and onto the roads of New England. He participates in the Boston Tea Party, runs messages for Doctor Warren, and witnesses the sad aftermath of the Battle of Lexington, in which he learns the true meaning of loss and what it means for a boy to become a man.
Forbes writes with a deep knowledge of her setting and characters, and with the skill of a poet. We see Johnny grow from a not very pleasant boy to a mature man, and the growth is perfectly natural. We see his friend Rab at the printing press or trying to steal a musket from a British soldier, and we feel intimately acquainted with him. We even smell the tea and hear the crash of the wood as "Indians" throw precious cargo overboard in an act of proud rebellion.
We also get a better feel for the nature of patriotism when our nation was young. Forbes doesn't shie from showing some of the Founding Fathers as desirous of material gain, but she also reveals the pure motives of those fighting for an end to injustice and for the rights of individuals to worship and think as they see fit.
Throughout Johnny Tremain, the growth of the new nation is a metaphor for Johnny's maturation, and vice versa. The youthful Colonies, just getting ready to come into their own, could be just as pugnacious as Johnny, just as arrogant, and just as kind, all in the arbitrary way of youth.
If you're looking for action and Revolutionary mayhem, you won't find them here. Forbes's tale is much more mature, intended as all good literature to move the reader to nobler thoughts and passions. As if to drive this point deeper, Forbes doesn't draw Tremain as flawless or even always likable, evolving his character rather than making him cherubic from the start.
This is one of those Newbery Medalists that throw off the whole curve. There are lots of good Newbery books, and there are three or four great Newbery books, and this is one of the latter. A great novel for readers of any age, it offers rare insights into the human soul, and a unique vision of the founding of our nation. Don't wait too long to read Johnny Tremain.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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