Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9360
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 Afric Queen as people stop at their table to congratulate Mr. Quincy on his victory over Mr. Lyte. Everyone knows Johnny now has a bitter enemy, but it feels good to have won. Rab explains how he got Cilla into court; he showed Mrs. Lapham an official-looking document and told her the governor required Cilla’s presence in court. The woman cannot read, so she believed Rab and sent Cilla to the courtroom. He had prepared Isannah to tell Cilla’s story as well, in case his ruse did not work. Instead of going back to the Laphams’ or taking advantage of Rab’s offer of a bed, Johnny sleeps in the stables.
He signs on as a captain’s boy but has no money for the warm clothing he will need for the unpleasant voyage. He decides to sell his cup; however, the only one in town who will place enough value on it is Merchant Lyte. The older man steals the cup and traps Johnny in his office. He plans to get rid of him by sending him to sea on one of his ships, and he calls in two foremen and a giant of a man called Captain Bull to haul the boy down to the wharf. Johnny takes advantage of an opportune moment and escapes this fate, running to save his life. He goes to the print shop where Rab recommends him as a horse boy who will make deliveries for the paper. Johnny will sleep in Rab’s quarters above the shop, and Rab will give Johnny some instruction on how to ride a horse, which he has never done before. Rab explains that the horse he will be riding, Goblin, shies at anything that startles him because he has been abused. If Johnny handles him with confidence, Goblin will be a fine mount for him.
Soon Johnny is able to ride with confidence as he delivers papers first to Boston and then on a three-day circuit to surrounding towns. He enjoys his time in the country and he enjoys the grand entrance he makes as he gallops into town on his striking horse. Customers at the local inns wait for him, asking him for the latest news of the unrest centered in Boston. Johnny has begun listening more carefully to Rab and his Uncle Lorne when they discuss the politics of the day so he will have something to tell these customers. Often people hire him to deliver mail, and he soon has enough money to buy second-hand spurs, boots, and a fur-lined coat. His hand is getting a bit stronger because he has to use it, and he is even writing with his left hand. On the days he does not deliver, Johnny reads voraciously, thankful his mother forced him to learn this life skill so the world is now open to him. He does most of his reading in the Lornes’ parlor, and he soon grows to love Aunt Lorne and her young son.
One Thursday afternoon after Johnny has made his last delivery, he sees Cilla and Isannah getting water in the square. He immediately feels sorry that Cilla now has to fetch water and carry it home on the heavy wooden yoke that holds the pails. He helps her and carries it as close as he can without going near the Laphams’ home and shop. He also asks her if she will meet him on Thursday and Sunday afternoons. She is noncommittal, but he promises to be there waiting for her.
Rab is as even-tempered as Johnny is hot-headed, but Johnny is trying to think before he speaks and particularly before he hurls his usual insults. One day at the home of Sam Adams he is doused with dishwater by a servant girl; because he does not react at once, he is invited in so she can dry his clothes and eat some apple pie. He meets Samuel Adams, one of the most influential men in Boston. Now Samuel regularly visits in a man-to-man way with Johnny and hires him to be an express rider. Rab and Johnny attend a barn dance, and Johnny is shocked to see the normally even-keeled Rab throw himself wholeheartedly into the dancing. Johnny is equally amazed that none of the girls who grab his hand are repulsed by it.
On Sundays, both boys have to get cleaned up and attend church with the Lornes. Reverend Sam Cooper is a fiery orator who spends more time on politics than on religion, denouncing England’s imposition of a tax on tea. Early one Sunday morning, Sam Adams awakens Johnny and Rab; he needs a favor. The tea ships are expected in the harbor today, and the Sons of Liberty intend to secretly print and place posters around town calling for resistance to the tea shipments. Adams hopes there will be no need for action and that the ship will be asked to return to London by the governor before it can be unloaded. There will be a private meeting tonight for the twenty-two members of the Observers’ Club to plan for tomorrow’s larger meeting. Johnny and Rab are sent with cryptic messages to each of them, informing them of tonight’s meeting.
No horse riding, for business or pleasure, is allowed on Sundays, so Johnny makes his rounds on foot. His first stop is the church, and he is able to deliver his message to four or five members, including Reverend Cooper. His next stop is the home of Sam Adams, who is in bed with a severe headache. While he is waiting for his note to be delivered, Johnny sees the exquisite creamer and matching sugar bowl another silversmith has made. Its handles are not right, just as his were wrong until he spoke with Paul Revere, and he thinks with longing of the fine sugar bowl that might have been. As he walks through Beacon Hill, he sees Miss Lavinia Lyte galloping into her stables. There is no one to help her dismount from her side saddle, so she finally demands that Johnny help her. He does, and she does not thank him. Johnny finds her to be a “most disagreeable woman.”
Johnny goes to Paul Revere’s house because it is near where he promised to meet Cilla and Isannah. He feels guilty for not having kept his promise for the last few weeks and hopes they will be there today. After he delivers his message, Johnny sees Cilla and her sister at the pump. Cilla looks forlorn and small and somewhat shabby. He pities her and wishes he did not. Cilla relates news from her home and the shop—not much has changed—and Johnny tries to remain interested. It seems so long ago that this was his world, but he has a new life and new friends. The faithful Cilla has not changed and does not realize Johnny has.
His last message is to be delivered to Dr. Warren. Once there, Johnny completes his mission and then waits as the doctor finishes writing an article for the printer. When Johnny takes off his mittens, Dr. Warren is drawn to his disfigured hand. He asks Johnny if it was so from birth, and the embarrassed boy lies and tells him that it was. That night the Sons of Liberty are tacking the placards all over town; they are often tormented and chased by Tories, who oppose rebellion against England. The Tories get the worst of it, though, as these young rebels are beginning to get violent. Meanwhile, the men are meeting in the loft above the print shop (Johnny’s and Rab’s living quarters) to determine the next course of action regarding the arrival of the Dartmouth, loaded with tea from England. When the boys take punch to the men, they sense an excitement in the room. After being sworn to secrecy, they are told that on December 16, if the tea ships are still in the harbor, men and boys will dress in disguise and dump the tea overboard. Johnny misses another opportunity to talk to Dr. Warren about his hand, but he is ashamed of his former lie and turns away from the kind man.
To be part of the rebellion, Johnny must train himself to use an axe, so he practices chopping wood for the Lornes. The unrest in Boston is growing as the English ships sit in the harbor. They have unloaded everything but the tea. The governor has decreed they cannot leave until they have unloaded all cargo, but the town refuses to let them do so. December 16 begins with rain, but by evening it is clear and the “Indian” rebels are gathering and putting on their disguises. Rab sends Johnny to the Old South Church to listen to Sam Adams’s speech. What he says (in code, of course) will determine tonight’s course of action. When he hears the words he is looking for, Johnny blows his whistle as loudly as he can and the movement toward the wharf begins. Johnny runs home to get his blanket and knit cap with feathers stuck in it; he hopes it will not all be over before he can get to the harbor. This uprising is not a surprise to the ships’ captains, and the work is peacefully done. One of the volunteer rebels looks familiar to Johnny. It is Dove, and he is scooping hundreds of dollars of tea into his oversized breeches. Johnny tells Rab; the tea, the pants, and Dove are all dumped overboard. Before they leave any of the ships, the “Indians” meticulously clean the decks. There is cheering in the streets, but everyone understands there will be a price to pay for having defied the King of England.
The price is high: Boston harbor will be closed until the tea has been paid for, which will essentially starve the city into submission. Even those who were willing to concede and pay for the ruined tea are now ready to unify and fight. Hundreds of wharf workers and tradesmen are now out of work, and the effects of the shutdown begin to ripple outward to all facets of life in and around Boston. The governor has been sent to England to face charges, and a British general is now in charge and can send anyone he deems dangerous back to England. Uncle Lorne is still printing a paper, but it is a struggle. He is determined to rally the entire colony to the cause by continuing to write about the tyrannical practices of the King. The British soldiers are still living normally; however, citizens are taking up arms and forming a militia despite the law forbidding such activity. Johnny becomes a courier for British soldiers. He charges them exorbitant fees, which he gives Mrs. Lorne to buy food for the family. The city is not starving, for food is arriving from all over, and even sympathetic people in London are sending money to the besieged town. Outraged oratory, printed material, and gatherings are overlooked by General Gage in an attempt to endear himself to the people of Boston.
Johnny is disgruntled because he is unable to shoot a musket, and when he arrives home to find Cilla talking animatedly with Rab he is almost angry. Cilla looks different, and he discovers it is because she and Isannah are now living at the Lytes’ home. Lavinia saw Isannah, with her long golden hair, reciting poetry in the sun and demanded to be allowed to take her home. Isannah refused to go until an arrangement was made whereby Cilla would also go and work in the house for a year. Rab walks Cilla to the Lytes’ and Johnny is jealous; from then on he tries to meet Cilla regularly on Thursdays.
At the stables Johnny discovers that Dove is now working for the British as a stable boy after having been fired as an apprentice by Mr. Tweedie. Johnny hates the boy even more for this traitorous action. On his way to deliver a letter, Johnny is accosted and asked to buy Goblin. Through a trick, he is able to keep the horse from being commandeered and earns respect from all the British stable boys; however, Dove is tormented mercilessly by them and spends as much time as he can near Johnny. While Johnny is dismayed by his consistent presence, Rab reminds him that Dove may be a useful source of information if any serious British action or troop movement happens. The hatred and desire for revenge Johnny once felt toward Dove because of his part in Johnny’s disfigurement is now gone, though he still does not like the lazy boy.
Johnny visits the Laphams’ shop. Mr. Tweedie is forced to be patronizing when Johnny hires him to repair a spur, and one of the older girls is pleasant enough to him. As he leaves, he realizes that he no longer holds any bitterness towards this family, but he is feeling something more than friendship for Miss Priscilla (Cilla) Lapham. One Thursday when he goes to see her, he is met by Miss Bessie (the Lytes’ kitchen maid), who tells him Miss Lavinia and Miss Izzy (Isannah) are dressing for a masquerade ball. When Johnny is called in to the dressing space, he sees the two of them in some disarray. He is not appalled for himself, but he knows old Mr. Lapham’s heart would break if he knew his granddaughter was acting and dressing so shamefully. Johnny slaps the young, prideful girl across the face and tells her to get more clothes on; Miss Lavinia and her friends all find this terribly amusing. Johnny tells Cilla she should leave such a house, for he knows she is broken-hearted both at what is happening to her precious sister and how poorly she is treated by the Lytes. Cilla does not leave, but Miss Bessie comforts Johnny and reveals she is actually a spy who has been working with Sam Adams. Bessie has been a source of information regarding the Lyte family, all Tories, to the Sons of Liberty; she has told them the Lytes will be going to Milton for a month, and there will certainly be trouble.
The Lytes are racing back to Boston for protection by the British troops after nearly being tarred and feathered in Milton. Johnny sees Miss Lavinia help her father out of the nearly broken coach and realizes the older man is very sick. They send for a doctor immediately, who tells Lavinia that her father must never again be upset for fear of his having another “fit.” Cilla tells her mistress she forgot to bring the silver in their mad dash for Boston. Miss Lyte is relatively unconcerned, but Cilla feels she must recover the silver before the rabble steals it. Johnny tries to dissuade her, but she is insistent. He borrows Dr. Warren’s horse and rig, and they get passes from both sides of the altercation to afford them safe passage. They arrive at the family estate and see the damage done by the rebels.
While Cilla packs the silver, Johnny ventures into the merchant’s office and sees that the old man must have tried to gather his valuable papers before fleeing. Johnny finds some papers hidden in a fake book and pockets them to give to Sam Adams. He also sees the family Bible and looks at the genealogy inscribed in the front. Out of curiosity, he searches for his mother’s name—and he finds it. Lavinia is a family name so there are many of them; however, he calculates the date and knows it is her. She was married to Dr. Latour, who died in Marseilles three months before Johnny was born. The entire entry has a line drawn through it. Johnny knows he was born in France, but the rest is a mystery to him. He cuts the genealogy pages from the Bible; before leaving the house with Cilla, though, he tears the pages and burns them, figuring it no longer matters that he is the grandnephew of Merchant Lyte. Leaving this house is emotional for Johnny, as he thinks about his mother and her birthright to this home. They close up the house, knowing the Lytes will not return, for war is imminent.
Gunsmiths are working extraordinarily long days, making muskets in preparation for the conflict to come. Rab tries to buy a British musket from a farmer who bought it from a British private, but they are caught. A soldier quietly releases Rab and tells him to go home; he escapes a likely tarring and feathering. Johnny learns that Rab has been courting Cilla, but Cilla expresses her interest in Johnny. He is thrilled. The Observers meet secretly one last time, and the founding member speaks to them of being willing to die so “a man can stand up.” War is imminent, and their main concern is discovering the British troop movements more effectively and then determining a way to get that information to the people who need to know. Paul Revere is assigned the task of creating an effective message system while Sam Adams and John Adams participate in the Continental Congress, where they will argue for war against Britain.
The information-gathering system Paul Revere develops centers on the artisans in town, each of whom has apprentices and friends. This expansive network of spies is able to track virtually every movement or action by British troops. The network meets openly to trade information at the Green Dragon, a tavern owned by a Mason. Most of the artisans are Masons, so it is not a suspicious gathering. They swear an oath of secrecy, and all their information goes directly to one of the four remaining Whig leaders in town: Sam Adams, John Hancock, Dr. Warren, and Dr. Church.
Johnny’s responsibility is to watch the British activity at the stables and the Afric Queen, since these are logical places for him to be without arousing suspicion. He is abetted by Lydia, the washing woman who has access to the soldiers’ actual rooms. One day she gives Johnny several torn-up letters written by Lieutenant Stranger; when he pieces them together, Johnny knows the next British military plot and Paul Revere is able to get American rebels to thwart the scheme and frustrate the lieutenant. Dove is still a mistreated stable boy for the British, and Rab and Johnny do all they can to cultivate that relationship in hopes of gathering valuable information about British troop movements.
On his way to deliver the Boston Observer to his Boston customers, Johnny walks Goblin through a British encampment as he always does. Today he is stopped and harassed until his papers fall out of his pouch. When the soldiers realize he is spreading sedition and insurrection, they grab him. One of the officers orders him to receive thirty lashes, but a young horse-boy named Pumpkin (for his red hair) who also worked for the Lytes quietly indicates Johnny should use his spurs on Goblin to escape the punishment. After a harrowing ride, horse and rider arrive at the Lytes’. Pumpkin tells Johnny his papers will do a lot of good in the camp, as many of the British soldiers are actually Whigs and are defecting with alarming regularity. Pumpkin just wants to live a simple life on a farm, so Johnny arranges for him to escape in exchange for his uniform and musket. Pumpkin disappears before he can leave as planned, but he does leave his musket and uniform, which Johnny gives to Rab.
Rab and Johnny make bullets from his aunt’s family pewter, and they are ready to fight when necessary. It is a warm spring and it is clear the troops are restless. General Gage is likely to lead a large regiment of troops to battle soon, for he has been judged too lenient with the Americans and three more ruthless generals are on their way from England. Johnny is exercising several horses in the Commons where the British encampment is when he finds himself a spectator to a firing squad. The victim is Pumpkin, the boy who wanted only a simple farm life; he is shot as an example to others of what will happen to deserters. Johnny is shaken.
On April 14, 1775, General Gage sends out spies dressed as Yankees to gather information. While the men of the rebellion know the actions, they do not know what information the spies report. The next day the general changes the standing order and all soldiers are now to learn new duties. The Whigs do not know what to make of all the activity but know something is afoot. The Minute Men, too, are active in their preparations for the coming conflict. Revere and Dr. Warren make a plan to warn Adams and Hancock, who are secretly in Concord: one lantern in Christ’s Church if the troops are moving by land, two lanterns if they were traveling by water.
On the sixteenth, a Sunday, church bells ring all over town, and both soldiers and citizens crowd into services. Rab prepares to go to Lexington now, before no one is allowed out of Boston, so he can join the fighting. Johnny is dismayed and gloomy; Rab is excited and anxious to leave. Monday and Tuesday pass quietly, and Johnny wonders if there will be any action after all. On Wednesday, April 18, Johnny learns valuable information from Dove, who does not understand the import of what he knows. Colonel Smith will be riding out on his best warhorse in the war saddle he has not used for more than a year; he will be traveling thirty miles, getting on and off a boat, and returning late the day after they leave. This is meaningful information to Johnny, and he tells Dr. Warren what he has learned. The plan to warn the cities of Lexington and Concord is now in place, and Johnny is the messenger called upon to inform both Paul Revere and Billy Dawes, a fine rider who will act the part of a drunken farmer if he gets caught. He is also charged with the instruction to tell the sexton to place two lanterns in the window of Christ’s Church. As Revere is being rowed across the river to his horse and a wild ride, as Billy Dawes is weaving his way through British troops and guards on the fastest horse in Boston, and even as the first shot is fired at dawn in Lexington on the Village Green, Johnny is sleeping soundly on a cot in Dr. Warren’s office.
Johnny is awakened by Dr. Warren, who tells him of the battle at Lexington. Seventy against seven hundred ensured a British victory; however, Minute Men from all over are on their way to Concord, the next stop for the British army. Dr. Warren has been sent for by Paul Revere and leaves Johnny to gather information and bring it to him when he can. The city is bustling with activity, though few people are aware that the war has begun. Then the drums roll and five hundred British marines gather, armed for battle. Johnny is moved by the sight, wondering how a group of rough-hewn soldiers could ever defeat such a force. The troops mock them by playing “Yankee Doodle” as they prepare to embark. By noon, Bostonians know what happened in Lexington, and General Gage issues orders to arrest the leaders of the rebellion—all of whom have already left the city. Johnny sends a warning to Uncle Lorne; though his printing press was destroyed and his house ransacked, the soldiers did not find him. Beacon Hill is the best vantage point from which to see all activity, so Johnny goes there to look for returning British troops. What he sees are tiny red ants, British soldiers, scurrying back to Boston—followed by flashes of musket fire from the Continental Army. Everything has changed.
Johnny has to reach Dr. Warren but there is confusion and disorder everywhere, and he remembers the uniform Pumpkin left him, still stowed secretly at the Lytes’. It is nearing midnight when he arrives, and he sees they are moving their valuables. In the kitchen, Bessie and Cilla are simply sitting quietly amid the frenzied activity around them. They have refused to go to London with the rest, and Lyte is leaving them in charge of the house in his absence. Isannah will be going with Miss Lavinia, for she wants to be a great lady and wear silk gowns and jewels. Her mother has signed the papers releasing the young girl to Lavinia’s care, and now Cilla must help her pack for the journey.
When Johnny and Lavinia are alone, Lavinia explains that she knows he is, indeed, Jonathan Lyte Tremain, her cousin and grandnephew of her beloved father. Johnny’s father was a prisoner of war in Boston, and his mother married him despite the threat of banishment from the family. Neither family was happy with the match, and soon it was announced that both his parents died. In fact, Johnny was born in a convent three months after his father died. His mother, once a striking and energetic woman, had changed so much that she knew she would not be recognized if she came back to Boston. She had hoped that her son might one day be able to claim his birthright. Lavinia’s father has promised to write it all out to make it official, and once the war is over Johnny can make his claim to the family fortunes—if there is anything left. Although General Gage has guaranteed no harm will come to the Lytes’ estate, there is no real guarantee in war.
Once she leaves, Johnny tells Bessie and Cilla why he came and what he intends to do. They try to dissuade him, but he is immovable. He asks Cilla to get Goblin and put him in the pasture with the Lytes’ animals, which she is excited to do. He asks Bessie if Uncle Lorne and his family can move to the carriage house and resume his printing once he repairs his press. Bessie is delighted to further the cause of freedom. Johnny puts on the uniform and prepares to leave. Bessie tells him to be careful if he must go, and Cilla wonders what is so important that he must go now. He tells her he has to give information to Dr. Warren and make sure Rab made it through the battle alive.
He realizes the uniform he is wearing marks him as a foot soldier that should not yet be back in Boston, so he roughs himself up a bit and tries to escape the notice of anyone as he makes his way to the wharf. There he sees a pitiful bunch of men arriving by boat. They look nothing like the crisp, confident men he saw leave Boston. He does not have an exact number, but he will be able to tell Dr. Warren that the damage to the British troops is significant. They appear defeated and demoralized. When his finally cajoles his way across the river to Charleston, Johnny finds a tavern to which he used to deliver his papers. Here he hears the story of the battle at North Bridge, a battle in which a flood of Minute Men hid behind rocks and trees and would have decimated the British troops if reinforcements had not arrived. Johnny continues his search for Dr. Warren, heading now toward Cambridge. Along the way he sees signs of British retreat and is sobered by a burial site for fallen American soldiers. The presence of so many Minute Men presents a unique problem. They are here to fight, but “they had nothing but the guns in their hands and the fire in their hearts.” They have no place to live, and they are unsure whether to stay and fight or to go home.
When Johnny finds Paul Revere, he is told he might find Dr. Warren in Lexington, the very place Johnny wants to go. When he stops at a well and asks a young girl for a drink of water, Johnny asks what he wants most to know: the names of those who died in the battle at Lexington. The girl stretches out her hand and proudly counts off the names of those who died so valiantly for the cause of freedom and will long be remembered. Rab is not one of them. Johnny passes the Green on which the battle took place and pauses to reflect about the momentousness of this place. When he finds Dr. Warren, he gives him the information regarding the British troops, then he asks about Rab. The doctor tells him Rab stood valiantly and would not disperse but was wounded badly. He tells the boy he can find his friend at Buckman’s Tavern but not to expect much and not to carry on when he sees Rab. Johnny understands what this means.
Rab is sitting up when Johnny arrives, but he is not going to live and Johnny knows it. Rab reminisces and then asks Johnny to take his gun so he can do what Rab has been unable to do. He also asks Johnny to go to his family home, Silsbee’s Cove, to check on his grandfather, who refused to leave when the war became imminent and other noncombatants went into hiding. The house is deserted and the gun and powder horn are missing from above the mantel; Grandsire Silsbee has joined the battle. When Johnny arrives back at the tavern, Dr. Warren’s face tells him Rab has died. As Johnny determines to postpone his grief for his friend, he picks up the musket, wishing he could shoot. Dr. Warren is finally able to see the wounded hand in action, and he explains all the damage that could have been avoided. He thinks he can give Johnny the use of his hand again by cutting through the scar tissue if Johnny is able to endure the pain. The boy assures him he can endure anything. As he looks out the window of the tavern waiting for the doctor to gather his surgical instruments, Johnny sees the Silsbee patriarch leading a small group of men toward Boston to do their part for freedom. Johnny understands that hundreds will die, but the cause they fight for will never die.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support