Johnny Tremain


Johnny Tremain
Esther Forbes (1944)

Read to:  4th - 6th grade
Read independently:  7th - 9th grade
 
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     This story is historical fiction - always a bonus in my book!  I enjoy picking up new historical insights in small pieces.  It's not enough of an interest to get a traditional history book and read it (that might put me to sleep better than a bedtime story does for my child!)  And I recognize that historical fiction is not 100% accurate - neither is my recall of what I learned in History class.  But it provides a base of familiarity with a subject which is usually more than I had before and I think is an important foundation to spark a child's interest and encourage them to go deeper and discover the real facts.  The story is set in the time period of the Boston Tea Party.  I'm sure at some point in my high school career I could tell you the date of the Tea Party and one or two memorized sentences that summed up the motivation for the event but 25 years later I only know that I knew it but I don't know it anymore.  And what I knew then is nothing compared to the insight this book provides.  You get into the lives of Paul Revere, Sam Adams (before he made beer), John Hancock and others.  You understand the events that led up to the skirmish and get a feel for the atmosphere of the community of colonists.  This story is so well written it really feels like you are a fly on the wall observing all these scenes.
     When the story begins Johnny is 14 and works as an apprentice with Mr. Lapham, a silversmith.  In that regard it's a bit like Young Fu.  Both boys have no father but in Johnny's case his mother is also dead and he lives at the Laphams with the other young apprentices and the family.  Johnny is quite the promising young silversmith, even better than the old man he is indentured to.  He's also said to have a rather high impression of himself which causes him a bad attitude.  he receives lots of advice and correction from Mr. Lapham but heeds very little of it.  In fact Johnny often thinks he knows better than Mr. Lapham and sometimes he does.  All this is illustrated in a passage on page 16:
     "Don't you ever vote for Mr. Hancock, sir?" asked Johnny.
     "I never do.  i don't hold much with these fellows that are always trying to stir up trouble between us and England.  Maybe English rule ain't always perfect, but it's good enough for me.  Fellows like Mr. Hancock and Sam Adams, calling themselves patriots and talking too much.  Not reading God's Word - like their parents did - which tells us to be humble.  But he's my landlord and I don't say much."
     Johnny was not listening.  He sat with the pitcher in his hand.  To think the poor, humble old fellow once had been able to make things like that!  Well, he was going to turn the trick again before he died - even if Johnny had to stand over him and make him.
Johnny has a love/hate relationship with many people in his life.  Dove, one of the other apprenticed boys even threatens to kill him.  And the Lapham girls frequently insult or ignore him.  They are aware of their behavior yet for some reason feel that this is how they need to behave towards each other even though at other times they are familiar and friendly and it's even implied that Johnny will marry Cilla.  Even though he seems to be committed to Cilla, he often admires Lavinia Lyte - the local socialite admired by many men and also somewhat Johnny's relative.  here again he loves her and he hates her.  Like on page 55 when he waxes on about her beauty for the first half of the page and spends the last quarter of the page wishing, "She kills herself overeating cakes and plum pudding, turkeys with stuffing and gravy, hot white rolls."  Johnny also gets jealous later in the book when he things his friend Rab is making a play for Cilla.
     For those parents who are over cautious, you should know that on page 89 there is a reference to going "down like a bunch of fagots".  By the context I'm really not even sure how the word was used in those times.  Also, on page 7, "Johnny could smell hemp and spices, tar and salt water, the sun drying fish."  For small children this is not a problem but at some point kids learn that hemp can be known by another name.  The mention in the book is by no means an enorsement - we're not even told what it's used for, maybe twine.  But I remember being concerned when my then 14 year old daughter came home from church camp with a craft project that was beads strung on a fiber.  The symbolism, the memory, the colors were nothing to her - she was most proud that it was made of hemp.  We removed the item from her possession and I had a talk with the youth pastor.  I didn't have a problem with the fiber itself - just her fascination with it.  (In the end she turned out find and I couldn't be prouder of my beautiful 21 y/o daughter in her final year of a double-major at Texas A&M and working towards graduate school - "hemp" free.)
     And speaking of education - of the three apprentices, only Johnny could read well.  Of Mrs. Lapham and the four daughters none could read but the youngest two (Cilla and Isannah) wanted to and Johnny tried to help them learn.  Mr. Lapham often made Johnny read passages fro the Bible, particularly about his character flaws, and Cilla watched closely to learn.
     So while not everyone in the time period could read - they certainly had a way with words.  Such as at the top of page 21 when Johnny is imagining how one of his deceased relatives might have spoken if still alive, he says she would say to her servants, "You dirty sluts, look at that gold dust under the bed! ... Fetch your mops and rags, you bow-legged, cross-eyed, chattering monkeys."  Johnny's natural way of speaking is not so colorful but still rather harsh.  One day Mr. Lapham chides him for the way he speaks to Dove, saying, "Johnny, I don't want you to be always riding them boys so hard.  Dove tries, but he's stupid.  Ain't his fault, is it?  If God had wanted him bright He would have made him that way.  We're all poor worms.  You're getting above yourself - like I tried to point out to you.  God is going to send you a dire punishment for your pride." (p. 29)
     Naturally something so foreshadowed must come to pass.  At Mrs. Lapham's urging, Johnny works on a Sunday to finish an important project.  Dove intentionally gives Johnny a damaged crucible and Johnny winds up badly burned on his hand - an injury from which he never recovers and cannot work as a silversmith any longer.  Throughout his life this causes him a lot of embarrassment and shame but little by little he overcomes it.  Such as on page 37 when Dove is goading Johnny and asking Johnny to show him how to hold a crimping iron.  "Johny walked out of the shop... .  He'd never show anybody again how to hold a crimping iron.  If you can't do you had best shut up.  He started to slam the door, thought better of it.  If you can't do, you'd best not slam doors."  Initially Johnny doesn't know it was intentional until Mr. Lapham mentions it one day when speaking to Johnny about forgiveness.  It winds up being time that heals Johnny's hatred - no amount of lectures or advice.
     Johnny continues to take steps towards his future.  The Lapham's are generous with him for quite a while but encourage him to go find something he can do.  On page 57 Johnny goes to Mr. Hancock's shop to inquire about a position but once Mr. Hancock realizes he can't write because of his hand, he speaks roughly to Johnny and sends him off.  He has a bit of remorse and sends his "little black slave" to give Johnny some money and wish him well.  Sadly Johnny uses the money to treat himself to a nice meal and then has nothing to show for it but an upset stomach.  Live and learn!  Johnny does that often - similar to Young Fu.  He did manage a couple small gifts for Cilla and Isannah which caused Mrs. Lapham to scold Johnny for stealing and tell him he's going to be put in the stocks.  Johnny just takes it in stride since he knows the truth and then Cilla tells Johnny she believes him.
     Another time though is not so heart-warming when Johnny brings limes as a treat for Isannah and she freaks out about his ugly hand.  soon after the Laphams bring in Mr. Tweedie to run the silversmith shop.  When Mrs. Lapham informed Johnny that he'd have to move back upstairs with the other boys instead of the special room he'd had since the accident, harsh words were exchanged, insults were hurled and Johnny left in a huff.  Dr. Phil would call this a defining moment for Johnny.  "Johnny's life with the Lapham's had been so limited he knew little of the political strife which was turning Boston into two armed camps.  The Whigs declaring that taxation without representation is tyranny.  The Tories believing all differences could be settled with time, patience, and respect for government."  (p. 71)  Johnny befriends Rab, a Whig, and is soon a vital part of the Whig movement.  Being put out of the Lapham's house brings Johnny to one of the lowest points in his life.  A point which his mother had told him was the only time he could use a silver cup with the Lyte family crest to appeal to his distant relatives for help.  An idea that backfires severely and continues to be a part of the plot throughout the book.  Johnny gets a job with Rab's uncle delivering the Observer newspaper.  This allows him lots of time for reading and he enjoys many classics such as, "Paradise Lost, Robinson Crusoe, ... , Tom Jones, Locke's Essays on Human Understanding", etc. (p. 96)
     Rab, only two years older than Johnny, makes much more progress developing Johnny's character by example than Mr. Lapham ever did with all his lectures.  "For the first time he learned to think before he spoke.  He counted ten that day he delivered a paper at Sam Adam's big shabby house down on Purchase Street and the black girl flung dishwater out of the kitchen door without looking, and soaked him.  If he had not counted ten, he would have told her what he thought of her, black folk in general, and thrown in a few cutting remarks about her master - the most powerful man in Boston." (p. ?)  It was a good thing that Johnny didn't anger Mr. Adams.  He is one of the Observer's Club that meets in secret to make political decisions.  Johnny becomes their messenger, announcing meetings in code by going two each member's house and telling them how much they owe for their newspaper subscription.  If they owe eight shillings it means there will be a meeting at 8 p.m.  One night Johnny observes Sam Adams whispering to John hancock at a meeting and thinks, "how the Tories were saying that Sam Adams seduced John Hancock, even as the Devil had seduced Eve - by a constant whispering in his ear." (p. 116)
     The second half of the book is much more historical than the first and may be too much for young readers to take in.  The first part is easy to follow like a general story but the second gets quite laden with names and political theories.  By Chapter Ten it's a day by day account starting with April 14, 1775.
     Around page 165 there is some talk of ghosts and haunted houses - not in a scary way but more as a feeling of connectedness to ancestors. 
     As the war draws closer there is much talk of death - it sort of goes along with the subject.  Paul Revere tells them, " 'Each shall give according to his own abilities, and some' - he turned directly to Rab - 'some will give their lives.  All the years of their maturity.  All the children they never live to have.  The serenity of old age.  To die so young is more than merely dying, it is to lose so large a part of life.' "(p. 180)  There is also talk of weaponry and how it was made.  The war reunites Johnny and Dove and they learn to tolerate each other and work together.  The book ends with confirmation of death - but hope for the future.
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