Johnny Tremain Summary
by Esther Forbes

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Extended Summary

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 entire section is 9,445 words.)