Esther Forbes won the Pulitzer Prize in history in 1942 for her adult novel Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. Her research for that book inspired her to write Johnny Tremain, published in 1943. It won the Newbery Medal of Honor for children’s literature.
Dawn is breaking in Boston, and Mrs. Lapham is calling the three apprentices and her own children to hurry up and get downstairs. Her threat is not very menacing because Mr. Lapham’s knees are too bad and Mrs. Lapham, his daughter-in-law, is too large to climb up the ladder and give them a good shaking to get them moving. Fourteen-year-old Johnny Tremain rousts the others from bed as he dresses for the day. Although he has only been an apprentice in the silversmith shop for two years, he is clearly the leader of the boys. Dove, a large, lazy, pale boy who has been apprenticing for four years, has always resented Johnny’s prodding and autocratic leadership. Young Dusty, much smaller of stature, both loves and resents Johnny. Everyone else likes Johnny because he is skilled both with people and with his hands. Mr. Lapham tells him often he has a God-given gift and should not act superior around the other boys, but Johnny does not particularly listen. The youngest two of Mrs. Lapham’s four fatherless daughters trade good-natured insults with Johnny as part of a morning ritual. Old Mr. Lapham uses his early morning time to read his Bible. It has already been decided that one day, after his seven years of apprenticing are over, Johnny and Cilla, the third daughter, will marry and Johnny will take over the business. Johnny is content with this plan. The house and silversmith shop are located on Hancock’s Wharf, and this morning the bustle of activity is going on as usual.
At breakfast, Johnny is asked to do the Bible-reading today; he is the best reader at the table, thanks to his dead mother. Cilla cannot read but wants to learn, and Johnny helps her follow along as he reads. Mr. Lapham often chooses Scripture passages designed to send a message to the reader; today’s readings are all about the sin of excessive pride. After a brief discussion, the old master asks Johnny to vow he will be more humble and modest; a disgruntled Johnny soon storms out of the house. As the day begins, Johnny keeps his vow for just a short time and is soon pointing out the faults in both workers and workmanship. Although Mr. Lapham is an extraordinary artisan, he does not always write down or listen carefully to orders that are placed, and he is often either late or incorrect when orders are delivered. Johnny is the one who makes sure they do not run out of coal and who writes down each order as it is given. It is hard to be humble when the shop relies on him so heavily. As he works, he makes plans about what he will do differently when he owns his own shop one day.
Madge, one of the older daughters, calls him back to the shop; Mr. Hancock is placing an order and Johnny must be there to ensure it is written down correctly. He is a rich patron and a successful order from him could make them rich; he orders a replacement sugar bowl to match a creamer. While Mr. Lapham listens but does not even look at the creamer he is to match, Johnny touches the silver vessel and pays careful attention to the design. He is already making plans for how he will make the piece, though it is more intricate than anything he has ever done. The original set was made by the old master; this comes as a surprise to Johnny because the work is so fine and delicate. When Mr. Hancock asks if he is sure he can do the work, Mr. Lapham ponders but Johnny quickly assures him they will have it done, on time, and it will be exactly right. The master looks at the apprentice gratefully. After Hancock leaves, his servant boy returns with three silver coins, one for each apprentice, so they can “drink to his health and be diligent at their benches.”
Johnny works on the handles as Mr. Lapham works on the bowl. After dinner, the master goes to take a nap; Johnny continues to shape and reshape the handles. Nothing quite satisfies him, but he is determined and will keep trying until he gets it right. As he eats a late dinner, Cilla is working on a trademark stamp for when Johnny is master of his own shop. He claims he will use all three of his initials. These girls from humble stock have never heard of anyone with a middle name and are anxious to hear what the initial L stands for, but he will not tell them. Johnny works late into the night and creates an exact replica of the winged woman on the pitcher, but he knows something is still not quite right.
He is awakened by Cilla, who is crying because her younger sister is sick. Isannah is beautiful, but she is often sick and unable to eat many kinds of foods. Cilla does not want to bother her mother; her mother does not really care if her youngest daughter lives or dies. It is hot and Isannah cannot breathe, so Johnny carries the eight-year-old girl to the wharf, hoping to catch a breeze off the water. They do find some relief from the heat. Isannah asks him to tell her a story, the story about his name. His name is Jonathan Lyte Tremain. Jonathan Lyte is a rich Boston merchant, and the girls ask him if they are related. Johnny admits he thinks about him and watches him all the time. Cilla gets him to talk about his mother, who brought him here from their home in Townsend, Maine, so he could be a silversmith apprentice in Boston. His mother sewed long hours and taught her son to read and write, even as she weakened. She called herself Mrs. Tremain, but she was born Lavinia Lyte, a gentlewoman. She gave him a cup, which he is to show her family when he has no place to go and nothing else left to do. Johnny promises to show Cilla the cup if she promises never to tell his story to anyone. When they arrive home, he retrieves a velvet bag from his locked sea chest and takes it outside to show Cilla. The cup is beautiful, and the intricacy of the family crest on one side of the cup made him want to become a silversmith. Now, with a more trained eye, he sees some faults in the workmanship and design; what it represents, though, is still awe-inspiring to both of them.
The entire week is hot, and Mr. Lapham takes a nap under the willow every day until Johnny wakes him to continue working. The basin is perfect, and the master is now adding all the intricate detail. Everyone else finds the handles Johnny has created to be acceptable, but he is still dissatisfied and goes to see another blacksmith in town, Paul Revere. He is greeted by name, which surprises him; he is unaware he is the apprentice in town all the masters are watching. It is the kind of shop Johnny one day hopes to own. When he explains his dissatisfaction with the handle, Revere agrees and shows him how to create a more proportionate handle. He also offers to buy his apprenticeship from the old man. Johnny is flattered, but he knows the shop would close and the family would starve if he left. Revere tells him to remember his offer if anything should ever happen.
The sugar bowl must be finished by seven Monday morning, but it is not until Saturday afternoon that Johnny finishes the perfect molds for the handles. He and Dove get into a fight as he prepares to pour the silver, and Mr. Lapham cancels work for the rest of the day. It is against the law to work on the Sabbath day, and Johnny still has seven hours of work to do on the piece. Mr. Lapham would rather break faith with a man, even an important man like Mr. Hancock, than break faith with God. His daughter-in-law, on the other hand, is determined that the work be completed on time so her children will not starve. She arranges for Johnny to finish his work Sunday afternoon.
Mrs. Lapham is acting as Johnny’s assistant. When he asks for a crucible to melt the silver ingots, she asks Dove to fetch one. He and Dusty giggle because Dove decides to give Johnny a crucible with a slight crack in it, hoping to teach him a lesson when he has to repeat his work. Instead, the crucible cracks, Johnny slips, and he burns his hand in the molten silver. He passes out. They cannot send for a doctor because they were breaking the law when the injury occurred; Mrs. Lapham sends for an old midwife as she places the injured hand in a bucket of flour. Mr. Lapham has the entire bowl melted down as penance for breaking the law and tells Mr. Hancock he will not be able to fulfill his order.
In the next month, the midwife does her best with the injured hand—as well as any physician would have done—except for one thing. Because it was painful for the boy to lay his hand flat, she allowed it to draw together, to double in on itself. When the bandages are removed, Johnny’s hand looks almost normal; however, his thumb and palm have grown together and made him useless in the only trade he knows. He is bitter and angry, and he paces the Wharf with his injured hand jammed into his pocket.
Things are different now at the Laphams’. As always, the least necessary boy in the shop has to do the most menial chores; now he is the least necessary, and he is regularly berated as he hauls coal and does the other humbling household chores. The two youngest daughters no longer tease with him. One day Mr. Lapham takes him aside and explains he can no longer honor the contract he made with Johnny’s mother. The boy is free to stay as long as he needs to, but the old man encourages him to take some time to find a new profession in which a crippled hand will not matter so much. The only thing the master asks of his former apprentice is that he forgive Dove. Johnny had not known Dove deliberately gave him a faulty crucible, and now he is furious. He masters his anger enough to thank Mr. Lapham and goes to fetch water as he endures the taunts of the two boys he used to command like a king.
Instead of taking the measure of each trade in town, observing long enough to see what would suit him and his hand as his former master suggested, Johnny walks into each shop and bluntly asks if they need a new apprentice. Several are interested until they see his hand; he could have worked for the butcher, but that is not the kind of work Johnny wants to do. He has a deep disdain for any trade but those of artisans, and he knows he is no longer able to do that kind of work.
He does not go home for the noon meal after Mrs. Lapham makes pointed comments that she is tired of feeding worthless boys who do not work. He almost always finds something to eat in his jacket pocket, though, undoubtedly put there by Cilla. As he dreams of his future, he wants to do special things for the kind-hearted Cilla. He always imagines himself as being rich and successful rather than a wastrel as Mrs. Lapham predicts.
One afternoon he is drawn to a printer’s shop. He realizes it is where the Boston Observer is printed. This paper is radical, advocating revolution against Britain’s “mild rule.” Inside, an apprentice behind the counter is listening to a woman’s story regarding her lost pig. The apprentice asks a few questions, and the woman begins to tell a story about this porcine member of the family. Johnny is fascinated and waits until the woman leaves and the apprentice sets the type for the woman’s ad. He feels an instant connection to this apprentice, and the young man offers to share his ample lunch with the hungry boy. As they talk, Johnny eventually has to show his wounded hand. It takes him a long time to cut a slice of bread, but the apprentice, Rab, does not say anything or offer to help him, though he clearly observes the struggle. Because Rab did not say anything, Johnny is comfortable asking about an opportunity to apprentice with the printer; he tells him the entire story of his time with the Laphams.
When Mr. Lorne, the printer, returns, Johnny notices that Rab does not act like most other apprentices, eager to please and often obsequious in the presence of their masters. The young printer is Rab’s uncle, and their relationship seems easy and comfortable. Twin apprentices, the Webb boys, follow along and begin their duties, and Johnny feels he must go so they can all get back to work. As Rab walks him to the door, he tells Johnny he has no skilled work for him, but if he wants to deliver papers all over town he is welcome to the job. Johnny assures Rab he will be back—when he can tell him he has a new job learning a real skill.
The Laphams are about to sign partnership papers with Mr. Tweedie, a forty-year-old bachelor who just arrived in Boston. Johnny meets him one morning as he is hovering about the shop. The man is timid and weak, and immediately Johnny disdains him. When he tells the man he knows he has been hovering near the house, hoping to be invited in for a meal, Tweedie gives him a look of utter hatred. In the kitchen, Mrs. Lapham is disgruntled at how disorganized everything is now. Johnny feels he must tell her his impressions of the potential business partner—and future husband of one of her older girls. He tells her the man is weak of character. However, since she was the one to find Mr. Tweedie, Mrs. Lapham is in no mood for his comments. She rises slowly from her chair and boxes his ear, telling him she is tired of his unruly tongue causing trouble in her house.
As Johnny walks through the market at Faneuil Hall, some see him as a rather rakish, rich young man; others see him as a potential criminal and count their wares after he passes by their stall. That morning he decides to begin seeking work with merchants, which he had always thought was beneath his artisan status. As he heads toward the merchant section of the city, Johnny sees the Lyte carriage drive by, and he stops to watch. He is always fascinated with these glimpses of his relatives. Lavinia Lyte, a young socialite still in her twenties, is not conventionally pretty, but Johnny finds her appearance striking. People defer to her; what she wears after her visit to London will set the fashion trends for the entire city. Her father arrives and Johnny turns away, longing for some of the sumptuous food he knows must be at their table.
Johnny walks into the counting house of John Hancock and assumes he will be able to speak directly to Mr. Hancock and share his story. Instead, a clerk asks him to read a document aloud; as he does, Mr. Hancock is attracted by his voice and comes over to him. Hancock does not recognize him as the apprentice he once met, but he asks him to add the numbers on an invoice. Johnny quickly adds those numbers as well as some others they give him. Hancock tells him if his handwriting is as good as his reading and math skills, he is welcome to a job here in the counting house. His writing is awful because of his hand, and he is shooed briskly away from the establishment. Soon he sees the same little servant boy who delivered the silver coins to the apprentices. He hands Johnny a small bag heavy with coins and says his master wishes him well. Johnny assumes they are copper coins, but when he opens the bag he sees silver coins. Mr. Hancock is a good man.
As his stomach rumbles, Johnny chooses his breakfast site carefully, following the best sights and smells. He eats and eats and eats, but he is dismayed when he has to give so much of his treasure for the meal. He purchases limes for Isannah, some new shoes for himself, and a book with lovely drawings and some pastel crayons for Cilla. He is broke again, but he is happy for the first time in many months. When he goes to share his treasures and the story of his good fortune with the Laphams, he is berated by his mistress for stealing shoes. Once she finally flounces out of the room, he gives the two young girls the treats he bought them. As he teases with Isannah, he picks her up, but she suddenly screams at him to get away from her with his ugly hand. Cilla is appalled, and Johnny walks away. He is now sure they all feel as Isannah does but have never told him. He walks around all evening until he finally slips into a cemetery to avoid being caught on the streets after apprentices are to be home. He thinks of his mother and finally sobs until he has no more tears. The moment has come, he realizes, to show his cup to Merchant Lyte.
At dawn he heads for Mr. Lyte’s establishment and imagines what it will be like to be embraced into the Lyte family. He is allowed to meet the owner himself, but Mr. Lyte scorns him as another poor boy trying to insinuate himself into the wealthy family. Johnny tells him he can prove his identity, is again mocked, and hurls a final insult at the man. He mentions that he has a cup that proves his identity, and the merchant begins to show some interest. Johnny describes the cup, and Mr. Lyte understands this may, indeed, be a member of his family. He invites him to his Beacon Hill home that evening.
He returns to the Laphams’ to retrieve his cup. Mrs. Lapham tells him not to insult Mr. Tweedie, to move into the attic instead of the good room, and not to “raise his eyes” to Cilla. Johnny retorts that daughters are far beneath him. He retrieves his cup and leaves to pass the day before he goes to the Lytes’ that evening.
Johnny visits Rab and tells him the story; Rab says that Lyte is “crooked” and “sly.” Johnny is not surprised, for he has heard such things being said. Rab goes on to say that Lyte is neither a Whig (claiming that taxation without representation is tyrannical) nor a Tory (believing that all things will work out with England given time and patience). He is trying to appease each side while standing for neither. Rab is disgusted with men like Lyte who refuse to take a stand unless it is expedient for business and profit. After bringing Johnny a clean shirt and jacket that no longer fit him, Rab offers him a place in the shop to spend the night if he needs it.
Johnny feels intimidated to enter the Lytes’ fine home, but he is admitted quickly and taken in to join the Lyte family. His surroundings are rich in every way, and Johnny is conscious that even his new shoes are inferior in this setting. Lyte says he has been expecting the appearance of some relative for months now, after hearing whispers among the family. When Johnny’s cup is placed next to three identical cups on the mantel, the family agrees that this must be a match—then promptly explains that this cup had been stolen and orders the Sheriff, standing in the corner, arrest the young boy. The family instantly begins deriding him as a scoundrel. Lyte says he has done some checking and this young boy has obviously been stealing, as his former mistress, Mrs. Lapham, says he owned nothing and now has bought gifts and new shoes.
The Sheriff is a bit kindlier outside of the house and offers to notify someone of Johnny’s whereabouts. Johnny tells him to tell Rab, the printer’s apprentice. After a good night’s sleep, Johnny has a visitor. Rab brings him blankets and food and books; he acts as if it were the most normal thing for a friend to be in jail. Around his neck, Johnny notices, is a Tree of Liberty medallion, which marks him as one of the infamous Sons of Liberty. This group has been committing secret acts of sedition against England in hopes of overthrowing its cruel reign in America. The jailer is also a “Son,” so Johnny is moved to a private room on the ground floor, which is generally reserved for gentlemen debtors who are imprisoned and will pay handsomely for the room. Rab tells Johnny he will be appearing in court next week and asks if anyone had seen the cup in his possession before August 23, the date Lyte claims his cup was stolen. Johnny remembers that Cilla saw the cup on July 2. Rab says this will be a simple case.
The next day, however, Rab is dismayed after a visit to the Laphams. Lyte has placed a substantial silver order with old Mr. Lapham and promised more “if all went well.” He paid in advance; it is clear he is bribing the Laphams. Mrs. Lapham refuses to allow her daughter anywhere near the courtroom as part of Johnny’s defense. She needs Mr. Tweedie to stay to complete Lyte’s order (her father-in-law now spends most of his time reading his Bible), and he will only stay if Cilla does not testify in Johnny’s favor. Mr. Tweedie despises Johnny for having insulted him and is now exacting his revenge. Rab explains to Johnny that there are consequences for his arrogant behavior, but Johnny refuses to admit he should not have been so rude. Rab has procured the finest young lawyer in town to defend Johnny at no charge, and he has a plan to get Cilla to court on Tuesday to testify. Cilla is also determined to go—even if her mother locks her up, as promised.
On Tuesday, Johnny sits next to his lawyer, Josiah Quincy, and watches the judge pass sentence on other people; some are fined, some are whipped or sent to the stocks, and some are dismissed. Merchant Lyte has been sent for, so Johnny knows his case is about to be presented before the judge. He is nervous; he feels worse because he does not see Cilla in the courtroom. Mr. Lyte arrives, and Miss Lavinia Lyte makes an entrance soon after her father. Johnny’s name is called. He must stand before the judge and take an oath to tell the truth; he is frightened because he knows how this could end for him. Merchant Lyte takes the same oath; he is not frightened at all. Cilla and Rab walk into the courtroom as Lyte is telling his story of how the cup was stolen. With a bit of a smirk, he then tells the story of Johnny’s visit and his claim to be family. When the judge asks if a family connection is possible, Lyte assures him it is not and then requests that the boy get the death penalty for such an outrageous lie.
Johnny tells his story next, explaining that his dead mother told him never to resort to the cup unless he was desperate. The entire courtroom appears rapt, and Johnny goes on to explain he broke his mother’s rule not to show the cup to anyone when he showed it to Cilla Lapham. Cilla speaks directly and without wavering, and Johnny is proud of her. Then the courtroom is aghast as a wild-haired Isannah bursts into the room and flies directly to the judge and starts telling Cilla’s story. She had been asleep when the event happened, so Johnny knows she is lying but appreciates her kind description of him. The judge is won over by the Lapham sisters and dismisses the case against Johnny, saying there is not the least bit of evidence to suggest that Johnny took the cup and lets him take it back. He even suggests Johnny can bring a suit against Mr. Lyte, though he does not advise it because the merchant is too powerful. As they leave, Johnny sees Isannah holding the hand of Miss Lavinia before she steps into her carriage. As they go to have lunch together in the tavern, Isannah bends and kisses Johnny’s burned hand; Johnny is moved by this tender moment.
The group eats lunch at the...
(The entire section is 9360 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of Johnny Tremain Summary. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!