Esther Forbes

Johnny Tremain

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Johnny Tremain Summary

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Johnny Tremain is a 1943 historical children’s novel by American author Esther Forbes, set during the Revolutionary War. It focuses on the title character, a young silversmith apprentice who loses the ability to practice his trade in an accident and is forced to seek his fortune elsewhere. The events in history surrounding Johnny’s life bring him into contact with some of the most famous figures in American history and place him at the crossroads of the revolution as the first shots are fired. Exploring themes of sacrifice, human rights, courtship, and loyalty, as well as portraying a detailed overview of the apprenticeship system, disability in the eighteenth century, and the tensions that led to the outbreak of the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain is widely considered to be one of the greatest historical children’s novels ever written. It won the 1944 Newbery Medal, and remains one of the bestselling children’s novels in the United States. It was adapted into a 1957 feature film by Walt Disney Pictures. It remains widely taught in middle school English and History classes in the United States.

Johnny Tremain begins in July 1773, as fourteen-year-old Johnny works as a silversmith apprentice at the Boston shop of Ephraim Lapham, an elderly silver master. He is close with Lapham’s granddaughter Cilla, and expects to marry her and inherit the shop one day. The shop gets an urgent order from John Hancock to make a silver dish similar to one Lapham made decades ago. Johnny is determined to get it right, but during the process his hand is seriously burned when Dove, an older apprentice who resents Johnny, deliberately gives him a cracked bowl that leaks molten silver. Johnny’s hand is left disabled, and he is unable to work as a silversmith. Johnny is forced to find work elsewhere to earn his keep at the Laphams’, and is only able to find work as an unskilled errand boy. This wears down his youthful pride, and he reaches the low point of his life. He travels to meet Mr. Lyte, a wealthy merchant and distant relative of Johnny’s through his mother, to ask for help. Lyte asks for proof that they’re related, and Johnny provides a silver cup with the Lyte family crest. Lyte then accuses him of stealing the cup, and Johnny is arrested. Johnny is only freed when Cilla testifies at trial that Johnny had the cup before the alleged burglary took place. Johnny is able to find work delivering a newspaper, the Boston Observer. The paper is a Whig publication, and Johnny learns about the world of Boston politics in the years leading up to the revolution. He befriends Rab Silsbee, an older boy who works at the paper. He moves in with Rab in the attic of the newspaper office, and learns to ride and care for Goblin, the office’s delivery horse.

Months pass, and tensions in Boston rise between the Whigs and the Tories. Johnny becomes more and more involved in politics, becoming a supporter of independence. His newfound maturity leads him to rekindle his relationship with Cilla, who becomes both a close friend and a political ally. When the Boston Tea Party erupts, Johnny and Rab are front and center, throwing tea into Boston Harbor in protest of the tax imposed by London. Retaliation, however, is swift, as Britain sends an army to occupy Boston. Boston’s port is closed, causing hardship to the town, which relies on trading for much of its income. Johnny is recruited by the Sons of Liberty, a secret group of Boston Whigs building the resistance against Britain. He works as a spy for them once British officers begin paying him to carry their letters to nearby towns. He meets prominent members of the Whigs, including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, Paul Revere, and Doctor Joseph Warren.

Rab joins the Minute Men, who are training for conflict at Lexington. He is troubled by not having a modern musket to fight with, so Johnny—who can’t fight, due to his hand—obtains one for Rab by helping a British soldier desert to the colonists. However, he’s shocked when the deserter is caught and executed. The final act of the novel takes place in 1775, when the Battles of Lexington and Concord take place. The Whig leaders meet in the attic above the Observer. They’re joined by the eccentric James Otis, a former member of the Whigs whose instability has left him out of favor. He gives an impassioned speech about the impending fight with the British, urging the soldiers to give all they have in defense of freedom. In the final battle, the ragtag American soldiers fend off the elite British army, although Rab falls in battle. Johnny agrees to undergo a painful operation by Doctor Warren to unfuse his fingers, which will allow him to take up his fallen friend’s musket and join the fight for independence.

Esther Forbes was an American novelist and historian who wrote ten historical novels, most dealing with colonial America, as well as a biography of Paul Revere. She was also a correspondent for the Boston Evening Transcript. She won the Newbery Medal for Johnny Tremain, her most famous and enduring work, and won the Pulitzer Prize for History for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. In 1960, she became the first woman ever elected to membership in the American Antiquarian Society.