Esther Forbes Carolyn Horovitz

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Carolyn Horovitz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It should be no surprise, if Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes, finds its way into the upper "rare" stratosphere of literary excellence. Lauded ever since it first appeared, it continues to be read and regarded as a fine historical novel. It is a book much praised, but it has not, as far as I know, been critically examined. (p. 139)

Basically, the story is one of character development, of a boy's struggle with his feelings of inferiority and worth, his attempts to find a place for himself, his problems about establishing relationships with people. It is almost as if he were a symbol of his time: a boy with promise and great natural ability but shackled by a sense of shame and inferiority. Aside from these symbolic values, this boy has the character and attitude of his own time, when men and boys were expected to make their own way…. He is not described as showing these traits and qualities of the times; he actively displays them. Although he is a boy of all ages in his teasing and carefully guarded tender feelings, he is a boy of his time. In our day and age, such a boy would be sent to juvenile hall.

But in those days, Johnny was needed and soon came to be valued for his courage, just as he came to find values for which to fight and by which to live. In a time of growing, the boy grew in answer to needs greater than his own. The answer to the question, "why time?", is apparent in this novel. This boy is of the time, bred, illuminated, and developed. Although presented in far greater precision than a symbol, he does have symbolic value.

Place comes alive sensuously with the first sentence, the first paragraph…. Miss Forbes brings Boston awake at the same time that the reader plunges into a sense of place—smelling, breathing, hearing, seeing. The novel has base in this way, from start to finish; never is skillful use of place merely a garnish or a layer in a sandwich. Speech and clothes and manner of behavior are all of a piece, but not an undifferentiated piece. (pp. 139-40)

This book does not merely deal with another time and place; it is impregnated with these elements. And the hero, in working out his destiny, is under the same inevitable compulsion that people in the past have always appeared to feel. There was no other way. Yet, during the telling, as during the actual happening, nothing seemed certain, nothing seemed inevitable…. There is a sense of the meaning of life, of creed and ethics, of human behavior…. Paul Revere's heroism was accepted casually with believability, credibility, coming through the illumination of small detail. One instance is the description of Revere's ride to Portsmouth, before his famous ride. The weather was bad that night:

From the lowering December sky handfuls of snowflakes were falling, but as soon as they came to earth they turned to ice. It was a bleak, bad, dangerous day for the long ride north.

Revere's wife was in bed, recovering from having...

(The entire section is 772 words.)