by Esther Forbes
For some reason, I seem to keep stumbling across Newbery Award winners lately (The View from Saturday and Ginger Pye leap to mind). Johnny Tremain is classic historical fiction – set in Boston just before, during, and after the Boston Tea Party, ending with the Battle at Lexington. Johnny is an extremely skilled, and thus valuable, apprentice to a silversmith in Boston. When a terrible accident leaves Johnny’s hand maimed, and unable to work silver, everything in his life is turned upside-down.
While set during tumultuous times, in many ways Johnny Tremain is way more about Johnny than about the history being made in Boston. The way that he grows and matures enables the reader to see the differences between various schools of thought at the time. Forbes does a good job of portraying not only good/bad Tories and good/bad Whigs, but even good/bad British soldiers, reminding the readers that everyone in history is human.
Several real people are woven into the story, as Johnny becomes involved with the Sons of Liberty – Paul Revere (a silversmith himself), Sam Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and others. Johnny himself goes from someone who simply didn’t care about the way his country is governed – because Johnny most certainly starts as an obnoxious and self-centered individual – to a passionate Rebel, and Forbes writes that transformation brilliantly.
For me, the weak part of the story is the entire part about the Lytes and Johnny’s possible familial connection to them. But in some ways, I think that the point of that story line is to emphasize how this new country that is being birthed is one that (theoretically) does not depend on royalty or lords, but is democratic and equal.
Forbes is writing for children; this book is probably a sixth-grade level, but the story is strong enough to hold the attention of an adult, and possesses enough depth to give that adult food for thought. There is a brilliant section where James Otis stands up and points out everything that these rebels have to lose, and demands to know why it is worth fighting for. He then goes on to give the answer to his own question:
James Otis was on his feet, his head close against the rafters that cut down into the attic, making it the shape of a tent. Otis put out his arms.
“It is all so much simpler than you think,” he said. He lifted his hands and pushed against the rafters.
“We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills…we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.”
Sometimes, for me, I read historical fiction as though it isn’t historical at all, but simply fiction. I don’t want to know if these are things Revere really thought, or if he and all the others were selfish, money-grubbing men who were unprincipled enough to take an entire country to war for their own gain. I don’t read these books to debate whether or not what this book says what they believed was actually what they believed. Instead, I read it like regular fiction – are the beliefs they express in this story ones that are worthwhile?
A truly good story, a timeless one like Johnny Tremain, carries on not because it records history so faithfully, but because it reminds us of what we ought to stand for, reminds us what rights and privileges are worth fighting for, reminds us of who we should be.