Esther Forbes John Rowe Townsend - Essay

John Rowe Townsend

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Johnny Tremain has an] inspirational note: 'We fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.'… [It] is a true historical novel, concerned with actual historical events; and it seems to me (though not for this reason) that it has true classic quality. I have the impression that the author may even have known she was writing a classic; for Johnny Tremain has an air of absolute sureness and solidity; like one of its redoubtable New Englanders it knows where it is going and knows it will be treated with respect. (pp. 181-82)

A feature of the book is its strong pictorial quality. The best set pieces not merely are colourful but have a powerful sense of historical occasion, as in the description of the 'great scarlet dragon' of the British brigade, seen first with its head resting on Boston Common, and later marching off on its thousands of feet. The book's main fault is a slight lack of cohesion between its two components: the personal story of Johnny, the smart apprentice whose expectations are dashed by injury, and the broad general subject of the rebellion. The first few chapters might be the start of quite a different kind of book. But the strengths far outweigh this weakness. And there is a fine sense of fair play in the recognition that men of all persuasions are good, bad and indifferent; in the willing acknowledgement that the crowds who sullenly watch the scarlet dragon are all Englishmen, fighting for English liberty. (p. 182)

John Rowe Townsend, in his Written for Children: An Outline of English-Language Children's Literature (copyright © 1965, 1974 by John Rowe Townsend; reprinted by permission of J. B. Lippincott Company; in Canada by Kestrel Books), revised edition, Lippincott, 1974.