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How does the author create suspense in the final chapters of Johnny Tremain?

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Esther Forbes creates suspense in the final chapters of Johnny Tremain by involving us in the furtive efforts of the colonists as the conflict comes to a head. Several characters that we know are obliged to either run toward or escape from danger of which could mean certain death if they are caught.

One example of this is Rab going off to meet up with the Minute Men. Johnny is very worried for his friend, and this concern pops up over and over during the last three chapters. It’s on Johnny’s mind often, and we as readers find ourselves obsessing over Rab’s fate as well, right up until Dr. Warren gives Johnny the final news.

Billy Dawes’s departure also reminds us that much is at stake. Billy plays his drunken character well in his house, and he and his wife laugh so much together that Johnny wonders if the wife understands the gravity of the situation. But as soon as the door closes behind Billy, it’s clear that his wife knows it may well be the last time she sees him.

Another well-loved family gets caught up in the drama when the soldiers search for those who have been printing items on behalf of the rebel cause. Uncle Lorne is forced to hide in a feather bed to avoid being taken by the redcoats; happily, Johnny had the chance to send a message to warn the family of the potential trouble.

And finally, there is the suspense of Johnny’s journey out of Boston. He is impersonating a British soldier, which carries a great deal of risk. The various obstacles he encounters remind the reader that his fate, and even the war itself, hinges on a myriad of small decisions and events that could easily have had a different outcome.

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Near the end of the book, Johnny knows that his friend Rab is with the Minutemen, but he hasn't heard the result of the first battle. The reader is in suspense because they know there has been a small battle and that the rebels were defeated and people died, but they do not know the names of those people. Then Johnny meets a woman who can tell him. He learns their names, the real eight people who died in the Battle of Lexington. So Johnny can breathe a little easier, knowing that Rab wasn't killed in the battle, and the reader does as well. Later, however, he finds out that there has been another battle, and Rab has been shot. He only gets to see Rab for a moment just before Rab dies. (The text doesn't explicitly state that Rab is dying, but Doctor Warren says, "Rab played a man's part. See that you do the same." Warren's usage of the past tense in combination with the severity of Rob's bleeding strongly suggests that Rab's life will soon be over.)

Forbes effectively plays with the reader's sense of suspense here. She heightens it and then relieves it, before ultimately surprising the reader with the news that Rab will die after all. Playing with suspense in this way, making the reader anxious about Rab's survival, gives more weight to his later death.

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Forbes uses the action of the beginning of the Revolutionary War to create suspense.

The last few chapters of the book involve important events in Johnny’s life and in the life of the new country.  Johnny is working on getting his hand repaired, and on deciding how he will be involved in the war.  The revolutionaries are trying to get the war off the ground, and it is becoming more and more imminent.  Violence has started, and the stakes are much higher.

For Johnny, the death of his friend Rab makes the war real, and causes Johnny to need to grow up.  He can no longer look at the war as harmless fun.  War is really happening, and very serious.

When Dr. Warren offers again to fix Johnny’s hand, he has an interesting response.

“Will it be good enough to hold this gun?”

“I think I can promise you that.”

“The silver can wait.  When can you, Dr. Warren?  I’ve got the courage.” (ch 12, p. 298)

Johnny will participate in the war in his own way, but he is convinced that he has the courage to move beyond his hurt, grow up, and do what he can for his country.

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