Saturday, October 25, 2008

Johnny Tremain - 1944

I remember my son’s fifth grade teacher reading this book aloud to his class (this would have been a little over ten years ago). I’d hear snippets when doing volunteer work in the classroom, and I’d always wanted to read the whole book. As it is available in unabridged audiobook format, I recently purchased a copy for my library. Had to wait a while to listen to it – the first copy we received had damage to nearly all of its discs.

The replacements finally came in and I listened to it over the past couple weeks. Narrator Grace Conlin did an excellent job with pacing and voicing. And what a terrific story!

The title character ages from 14 to 16 in the book, set in Boston in 1773-1775. At the beginning, he is an orphan apprenticed to a silversmith. A life-altering accident there cripples his hand and leads to his becoming a “horse boy” and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and various icons of the American Revolution, including Paul Revere, John Hancock, Sam and John Adams, Dr. Joseph Warren, and James Otis. Johnny participates in the Boston Tea Party and the aftermath of the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Author Esther Forbes also won the 1942 Pulitzer Prize in history for her biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. In her Newbery acceptance speech, she said that while working on that biography, “I became interested in the life of the apprentices...of Boston.” Johnny became the real horse boy “who brought word to Paul Revere that the British intended to march out of Boston on the night of the 18th of April in ’75.” Johnny’s nemesis, Dove, becomes one of the “horse boys of the British officers” who “let slip the information that troops were being sent out that very night.” This was "the nucleus from which a story might grow. But I was still busy on Paul Revere. That was not the moment to go off on tangents...I said to myself, “Sometime...”

“Sometime” was shortly after Pearl Harbor, when Forbes saw parallels between the American Revolution and World War II, when “boys and girls are by the very fact of war closer now spiritually, psychologically, to this earlier generation....I also wanted to show that these earlier boys were conscious of what they were fighting for and that is was something which they believed was worth more than their own lives. And to show that many of the issues at stake in this war are the same as in the earlier one.”

The book is sometimes accused of being pro-war. Instead, I see balance. In her acceptance speech, Forbes speaks of the British occupation of Boston:
In the papers every day were stories of similar occupation of European cities. The boys and girls of the age I made Johnny Tremain were reading of the treatment Norwegians, Dutchmen, Poles and Frenchmen were enduring under the Nazis. But look back at the British in Boston. Where were the firing squads, the hostages, the concentration camps?...It seemed to me that too often our schools have held up the British Redcoats as ogres. From everything I could read of the period, it seemed to me that their occupation of Boston from 1774 to 1776 was as humane a military rule as any one could possibly imagine. The contrast between the way the British treated the civilian population at that time and what the Nazis are doing today is startling.

Throughout the book there are examples of Johnny recognizing the good sides of both the British soldiers and the Tory colonists. Johnny also experiences the negative aspects of war, with the deaths of his friend Rab and of Pumpkin, the British soldier Johnny tries to help to desert.

M. Sarah Smedman, in “Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain: Authentic History, Classic Fiction" (in Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children’s Literature, Vol I, , 1985, pp. 89-90) says the inspiration for Johnny may have come right out of Forbes’ Pulitzer-winning biography. Revere’s father, Apollos Rivoire, was a Huguenot who escaped their persecution in France (Johnny’s father is French). He emigrated alone to Boston at age 13 and was apprenticed to a goldsmith. Johnny Tileston, the longtime master of the North Writing School in Boston and a likely classmate of Revere when a pupil there, “had a deformed hand, drawn together like a bird’s beak” (Revere, p. 28). Forbes used diaries and other primary sources of real 18th-century Boston apprentices to paint a credible picture of the lives of Johnny and other apprentices.

Hamida Bosmajian also made an interesting observation in her article, “The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain” (The Lion and the Unicorn, Vol. 13, 1989, p. 61-62). “Johnny’s two French names are very meaningful: La-tour implies journey and circle, Tre-main suggests three-handedness – a sound hand, a scarred and twisted hand, a hand set straight.”

This coming-of-age novel is chock-full of such symbolism, as well as balanced history and characters, and great vocabulary (both 18th and 20th century). It’s rated at fifth-grade reading level and would be appropriate for that age and older, especially students studying the American Revolution. I highly recommend this book.

[Cross-posted at my book blog, Bookin' It.]

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