The novel begins in Boston in 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party. At the beginning of the story, Johnny is serving as an apprentice to a silversmith, and many of the early chapters describe the smith's home and shop. When Johnny is forced to seek work elsewhere, the setting changes to Hancock's Wharf and some of the businesses located there. After Johnny becomes a rider for the Boston Observer newspaper, the narrative follows him to the homes of some of Boston's most affluent and prominent citizens. The story ends after the 1775 Battle of Lexington, which marked the beginning of the American Revolution.
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Johnny Tremain combines believable characters, historical events, drama, humor, and sharp images to create an appealing and meaningful novel. Innumerable descriptive details convey a strong sense of life in eighteenthcentury Boston. These details lend realism to the story as Forbes depicts characters performing daily tasks such as fetching water and feeding livestock. By portraying everyday life in the colonies, Forbes shows how history affects ordinary people and how, likewise, these people's valiant efforts can change history. Forbes's technique of basing her lively fictional narrative on carefully researched historical facts lends authenticity to the story.
Vivid images invigorate the narrative. For instance, the description of British soldiers on the street following the Battle of Lexington conveys how overwhelmed Johnny is by the escalating violence: "The narrow course of Tremont Street was filled to the brim and overflowing with the waiting scarlet-coated men. Like a river of blood." One of the most striking symbols appears when Johnny witnesses the activities of the firing squad and is terrified by the "round eye of death at the end of a musket."
The scene where Johnny spends some of his silver coins on a feast reveals Forbes's use of authentic detail, apt metaphors, and humor. She describes Johnny's meal, typical colonial Boston fare, in detail: five squabs, pastries, a wreath of jellied eels, a "tipsy parson— white bread tied...
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Since Johnny Tremain concerns the Revolutionary War, it necessarily deals with death. The story focuses on events leading up to the war, but conflicts between the Tories and the rebels sometimes turn violent. One Tory falls victim to the revolutionaries and is tarred and feathered. Later, rumors circulate that the Lyte family will be run out of Boston on rails. But through most of the book, Johnny never witnesses any violence; he just hears stories about it.
By the end of the story, the violence is no longer detached and distant. Pumpkin, a pleasant young British recruit whose only desire is to have his own farm, falls victim to the firing squad. Johnny, intruding on this scene, is profoundly affected by the death and begins to doubt his own courage. Then, Rab is seriously wounded. Although he does not die in the story, the wound is clearly fatal. Forbes presents the violence inherent in the story with sensitivity. She does not depict war as glamorous and exciting but as dangerous and deadly.
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Topics for Discussion
1. Isannah Lapham is only a minor character. What function does she serve in the story? How can she be compared to her sister Cilia?
2. At the end of the story, Rab becomes one of the first casualties of the American Revolution. Why did Forbes choose to have a major character killed? Would the story change significantly if Rab lived?
3. In many ways, Johnny, Rab, and Cilia seem far older than they really are. What kinds of adult responsibilities do they have? How does war cause young people to grow up faster?
4. Forbes said that she tried to make Johnny a realistic and fully rounded character. Was she successful in her intentions? How is Johnny similar to boys his age today?
5. Mr. Lapham predicts that Johnny will be punished for his vanity. Is Johnny's accident bad luck or is Johnny himself to blame?
6. When Johnny tears up the pages from the Lyte family Bible, he says "This is the end. The end of one thing—the beginning of something else." Explain what he means.
7. Any death in wartime is tragic, but the death of the redheaded soldier Pumpkin seems particularly sad. Why does the death of a British soldier have such a profound effect on Johnny?
8. How are the apprentices such as Johnny and Rab able to obtain secret information? How is Johnny Tremain a testimony to the "unsung heroes" of the American Revolution?
9. Johnny is unsuccessful when he goes job hunting....
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Johnny Tremain gives extensive detail about the life and work of silversmiths in eighteenth-century Boston. Research the apprenticeship system as it existed in America. Describe the activities of other colonial artisans, such as candlemakers, shipwrights, or coopers.
2. Although Johnny and his friends are fictional characters, the author includes the activities of many famous people and events in the story. How is Johnny Tremain really a novel about the anonymous heroes of the Revolution rather than about the famous statesmen?
3. Esther Forbes wrote her most famous books, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In and Johnny Tremain, in the 1940s, when World War II was being fought. The two books were inspired by the author's concern with the meaning and nature of human freedom. What messages is the author trying to convey with the books? How could she have hoped to influence her readers?
4. Some of the minor historical figures, such as Dr. Warren, Billy Dawes, Josiah Quincy, James Otis, and Dr. Church, actually participated in the events described in Johnny Tremain. Research one of them and explain what happened to him after the novel.
5. The women in the story play quiet but highly significant roles in the war effort. Research and describe how women made important contributions to the American Revolution.
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Forbes's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, details the life of the famous silversmith and his activities before and after the American Revolution. While writing this biography, Forbes became intrigued by the roles that the apprentices had played in the revolutionary activities, an interest that inspired Johnny Tremain. Unlike Johnny Tremain, Paul Revere is specifically geared to an adult audience, but could be used by teachers to supplement classroom use of Johnny Tremain.
Walt Disney Studios filmed an excellent adaptation of Johnny Tremain in 1957 that starred Luana Patten, Jeff York, Sebastian Cabot, Dick Beymer, and Walter Sande. In addition, a movie was made of Forbes's The Running of the Tide (1948); a ballet was based upon A Mirror for Witches; and a musical entitled Come Summer was adapted from Rainbow in the Road and produced in 1969.
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For Further Reference
Forbes, Esther. "The Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book 20 (July-August 1944): 261-267. Forbes describes how she came to write Johnny Tremain.
Gemme, Francis. Forbes's "Johnny Tremain". New York: Monarch Press, 1966. This analysis offers in-depth information about the historical events and the characters described in the novel. The book also includes a detailed summary of the novel.
Horn Book Papers. Vol. 1. Boston: Horn Book, 1955. This work offers a critical evaluation of the novel and includes biographical data about Forbes.
Jordan, Alice M. "Esther Forbes, Newbery Winner." Horn Book 20 (July- August 1944): 268-270. This article provides biographical data...
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