“Johnny Tremain” is a 1943 children’s novel by the American author Esther Forbes. The book is famous for its depiction of the beginning of the Revolutionary War in America through the eyes of a fictional teenager. It won the Newbery Medal in 1944 and is the 16th bestselling children’s book of all time in the United States as of the year 2000.
The novel centers around the titular character, Johnny Tremain, a silversmith’s apprentice who is badly wounded in an accident in the shop and no longer able to work. Bereft, he takes a job as a newspaper boy at a popular Whig newspaper. While there he becomes a surprising participant in the brewing war and eventually a Whig spy. Johnny is not able to go to war because of his injured hand and he is devastated by the loss of his best friend, Rab who dies in the first battle of the war. Johnny soon discovers that his hand can be easily fixed with an operation and looks out on his country with pride as he realizes that he can now fight for it.
The book is notable for its clever use of real historical figures like Paul Revere, Samuel Adams and John Hancock and its use of real events like the Boston Tea Party. It was adapted into a Walt Disney Pictures movie in 1957.
Johnny Tremain is a fourteen year-old boy who works as a silversmith’s apprentice and lives in Revolutionary-Era Boston with his elderly master, Mr. Lapham. Also in the house are Lapham’s family, including his daughter in law and her four daughters. Johnny lives well as he is considered a talented silversmith and his talent brings in enough money for the family to live comfortably. While the other two apprentices, eleven year-old Dusty and sixteen year-old Dove are made to take part in the chores around the household, Johnny is not as his time is deemed too valuable to waste.
Johnny’s status in the house makes him arrogant and he bullies the other boys. Mr. Lapham, who is a Christian disapproves of his bullying and makes him read Bible verses about the sin of pride aloud one day at breakfast. Though Johnny realizes his mistake he still continues to bully the other boys.
Though Johnny’s relationship with Dove and Dusty is adversarial, his relationship with the four Lapham daughters is on better terms. Mrs. Lapham, the girl’s mother, wants Johnny to marry one of her daughters to keep the silversmith business within the family. The middle child, Priscilla, who is called Cilla is the ideal choice. Cilla and Johnny have a playful relationship that covers affection. But most of Cilla’s love is devoted to her younger sister, Isannah, who is sickly.
One day, the wealthy merchant John Hancock arrives at the Lapham’s shop to order a sugar basin to complete a tea set that Lapham made years earlier. Lapham is reluctant to take the order, since he worries that he will not be able to aspire to the beautiful silver work that he did as a young man but impulsive Johnny takes the order for him, desperate to work with such a beautiful set.
Johnny begins to design the handles for the basin but always feels that he can do better and throws away his attempts. While he is working one night, Cilla asks him if he wishes to accompany her and Isannah to the wharf as the sea air revives the young girl. Johnny agrees and sits alone with the two girls, feeling close with them. He reveals a secret about himself that he has never shared before. He is related to a rich Boston merchant named Jonathan Lyte. Before his mother died, she gave to him a silver cup with the Lyte coat of arms and told him to keep it hidden and to never go to the Lyte’s unless there was no other option.
Johnny continues to work on the handles for the basin, despairing that he cannot perfect them although everyone in the house assures him that they are good. He takes his designs to Paul Revere, a well known silversmith in Boston to ask for advice. Johnny is amazed that Revere knows who he is and Revere tells him that all of the silversmiths in town have been watching him. He helps Johnny perfect the handles and then asks him if he would want to come work in his shop. Johnny politely declines, insisting that he cannot abandon the Lapham family since he is their main provider.
Back at home, Johnny prepares to work and sends Dove out for charcoal. When Dove returns with inferior charcoal, Johnny harshly criticizes him. Mr. Lapham scolds Johnny and forbids him to work anymore that evening, despite the fact that the order is due Monday and it is illegal to work the following day, Sunday. Mrs. Lapham, however, is not as religious as her father-in-law and allows Johnny to work Sunday as Mr. Lapham will be away most of the day. When Johnny begins working, Dove intends to humble and prank him by giving him a cracked crucible. But his prank evolves into a terrible accident and Johnny badly burns his hand in the molten silver.
Mrs. Lapham is so afraid to reveal that Johnny was working on a Sunday that she summons a midwife instead of a doctor. The midwife incorrectly bandages Johnny’s hand and when the bandages are removed his thumb is fused to his palm. With his injury, Johnny can no longer work as a silversmith. Mr. Lapham tells John Hancock that he cannot complete the order, but gives him no explanation.
Now that Johnny is no longer able to earn money, the family suffers from the lack of income. Mrs. Lapham begins bullying Johnny for his laziness and complains about having to feed him. Cilla hides food in his pockets so that he will not have to eat in front of her mother. Mr. Lapham tells Johnny that he can remain with the family for as long as he needs but his hurt pride encourages him to look for work with other silversmiths, all of whom reject him because of his injury.
Mrs. Lapham negotiates with an older silversmith named Mr. Tweedie to take over the shop after Mr. Lapham dies and Johnny resents Tweedie for taking his former position. Searching for work, Johnny goes to the Whig newspaper the Boston Observer. The print shop boy, Rab sizes him up and offers him something to eat. Johnny soon finds himself sharing his whole story. Rab offers Johnny a newspaper delivery route. Johnny politely declines as he still wants to find work as an artisan. Rab tells him to come back if he fails.
Johnny goes to John Hancock next who almost takes him on as a clerk before realizing that Johnny’s handwriting is illegible because of the accident. He gives him a bag of silver for his troubles, which Johnny wastes on junk food and new shoes and gifts for Cilla and Isannah. When he gives them their gifts they are delighted but Isannah suddenly flinches and says that she does not want Johnny to touch her with his injured hand. Johnny is heartbroken and cries himself to sleep on his mother’s grave. He decides that he has no other recourse and must go to Jonathan Lyte.
However, when he goes to see Lyte and shows him the cup, the man assumes that he is a thief who stole the cup and has him arrested. Rab visits him in prison and not only manages to find him a lawyer but stops the opposition from keeping Cilla out of the courtroom. Cilla is able to testify that Johnny showed her the cup in early July when Lyte is insisting that the cup was stolen in late August. Isannah repeats this testimony although she never actually saw the cup herself.
The judge rules that Johnny is innocent and allows the cup to be given back to him. After the trial, Lavinia Lyte, daughter of Jonathan and well known beauty takes Isannah’s hand and tells her that she has an ethereal beauty. Isannah kisses Johnny’s injured hand before leaving the courtroom which cheers him. Johnny approaches Lyte shortly after the trail and tries to sell him the silver cup as he is still desperate for money. Lyte still does not believe that they are related and tries to have Johnny arrested again by claiming that he confessed the thievery. Johnny yells at Lyte before fleeing.
Returning to the Observer, Johnny asks Rab if the paper boy position is still available. Uncle Lorne, the owner of the shop, hires Johnny after Rab recommends him. Rab tells Johnny that they can share the apartment above the shop. In order to deliver papers, Johnny must learn to ride a horse. Unfortunately, the shop’s horse, Goblin is timid and hard to ride. Thankfully, Johnny learns to ride the horse although he has to do so mostly on his own.
When Lorne praises Johnny, Johnny hides his arrogance at being praised because he thinks that is what Rab would do. Johnny learns to write with his left hand while working at the paper and also becomes a Whig. The Observer is a Whig paper and a Whig club bearing the name of the paper regularly meet in Johnny’s loft. Living by Rab’s example, Johnny begins to tone down his anger. When the slave of Samuel Adams accidentally spills dishwater on Johnny, he suppresses his instinct to become angry and as a result, Adams hires Johnny to ride for the Boston Committee of Correspondence which would later become the Continental Congress.
One day, Johnny bumps into Cilla and Isannah while getting water. He is surprised to realize that he has not thought of them in a while and promises to meet them at the pump every week but fails to keep this promise. Johnny is more interested in spending time with Rab although the other boy has not told him much about his personal life.
One day, Johnny and Rab fight the local butcher’s son for bullying Lorne’s apprentices. Johnny notices that no one noticed his crippled hand during the fight and Rab says that people only notice his hand when he draws attention to it. When the Boston Observers club schedule a meeting to talk about a new tea shipment that has been highly taxed, Johnny is sent to the individual member’s houses to give them a summons that is encoded in a newspaper bill. Johnny is told not to visit the leader of the group James Otis because he has grown mentally unsound. Johnny is initially excited by the talk about a revolution but when a Whig group savagely beat a Tory man outside of the print shop, he grows frightened.
At the meeting, the Observers move that if the governor refuses to send the tea ships back to England, they will dump the tea into the harbor. Rab is asked to secretly recruit boys for the mission. The Boston Tea Party happens a short while later. Johnny and the rest of the group dress as Native Americans and board the ships in the dark of night, tossing the tea into the harbor. Surprisingly, Dove is in the group of boys that participate. However, Dove steals some tea for himself and Rab punishes him by pushing him into the water.
Boston commerce grinds to a halt in the wake of the Tea Party. England closes the ports of the city, effectively starving its residents as no new food shipments can come in. Local militias begin drilling in the city as it fills with British soldiers. Other colonies sent food shipments in support. Cilla arrives at the Observer office one afternoon and her playful conversation with Rab makes Johnny jealous. Cilla tells Johnny that Lavinia became so enchanted with Isannah that she asked that the girl come live with her and Mrs. Lapham allowed it. Isannah, however, would not go without Cilla. Cilla now works as a servant in the house. Lavinia parade Isannah around the city like a pet. Rab walks Cilla home. Dove begins working as a stable boy for an English Colonel. The other boys bully him as Johnny once did. Johnny’s previous hatred for Dove has evaporated and he now protects the boy when he can. His resentment for Mr. Tweedie has also vanished and he hires the man to fix his spurs.
One day, Colonel Smith’s assistant tries to commandeer Goblin. Johnny pretends to allow him to take the horse but helps the washerwoman flap a sheet in the wind to scare the horse and get him to buck the man off. Johnny gets to keep the horse. Johnny tries to visit Cilla in the Lyte house when he can but it bothers him to see her working as a servant. Mrs. Bessie, another servant and Cilla’s new friend, tells Johnny that the Sons of Liberty, a Whig society, plan to tar and feather the Lytes at their home. She promises to protect Cilla and Isannah. However, shortly before the attack is supposed to happen, Mrs. Bessie relents and warns the Lytes.
The family fled to the country. Johnny offers to accompany Cilla to take the valuable silver from the Lytes house to protect it. While there, he steals some of Jonathan Lyte’s important documents to give to Samuel Adams. He also finds the family tree in an old Bible and discovers that his mother’s name has been scratched out. The book says that she died of the plague before his birth. Johnny removes the page and burns it.
Meanwhile, Mrs. Lapham marries Mr. Tweedie after her other daughter marries so that she can keep the silver shop in the family. Rab tries to court Cilla who decides that she likes Johnny better. Johnny realizes that he likes her too. The Observers break apart as they worry that they will be discovered. James Otis arrives and gives a rousing speech about fighting the British. The Whigs seize a valuable munitions supply thanks to help from Johnny and Paul Revere sets up his notification system of horse riding if the British approach.
Johnny realizes that many British soldiers actually support the colonial cause and one of them asks for Johnny’s help in deserting his post. He wants to become a colonial citizen so that he can buy a farm. Johnny arranges to have the man smuggled out of Boston and the man gives Johnny his old uniform and musket which Johnny gives to Rab. Unfortunately, the soldier is caught and executed by the British.
While Johnny listens to Paul Revere talk about is plan to use lanterns to notify the colonies of the approaching British, he falls asleep and dreams about himself as a boiling lobster while John Hancock and Samuel Adams look on. Hancock turns away at the sight but Adams enjoys it. That night, Revere leaves by horse to spread the word about the oncoming British. Rab leaves Boston to join the colonial army in Lexington. Johnny is heartbroken at his friend’s departure but Rab reminds him that he will be more useful as a spy as he cannot shoot a gun with his injured hand.
Johnny uses his connection with Dove to find out that the British are planning to invade Lexington and Concord. He tells this information to his fellow spy, Doctor Warren who tells him to repeat the message to select people. Johnny alerts Paul Revere who goes off to warn the countryside. He instructs the parson to hang two lanterns in the spire of the church. Revere urges Warren to leave Boston with him as the British are going to hang anyone suspected of treason when they invade. Warren elects to stay in town as does Johnny.
On April 19th, the first gunshots ring out on Lexington Green. When Johnny hears about the handful of rebels killed in Lexington he worries about Rab. Doctor Warren goes to Lexington and tells Johnny to slip out of the city that night after collecting more information. Johnny overhears a British general ordering that the leaders of Whig papers be arrested and warns Uncle Lorne. He arrives at Lorne’s house to find the man hiding in a mattress to avoid the soldiers.
The Tory Lyte’s plan to go to London and Johnny arrives to find them packing their things. Cilla is planning to stay behind and begs Isannah to stay with her. Lavinia asks Isannah if she would like to stay and live in poverty with her sister and Isannah bursts into tears while choosing to go with the Lytes. Lavinia plans to train her as an actress.
Lavinia confesses to Johnny that the cup that his mother gave him was indeed, theirs. Jonathan did not realize that Johnny’s mother had a child and truly believed that she died of cholera in France before Johnny was born. She tells Johnny that his father was a French soldier who was a prisoner of war in Boston during the French and Indian war. He fell in love with Johnny’s mother and the two ran off to France together. When his father died, Johnny’s mother was sent to a convent and it was there that he was born. Lavinia says that she investigated all of this after the trial and she and her father now realize that Johnny has a right to some of their property. She tells him that he is free to take the house after the war is over.
Johnny leaves Boston to travel to Lexington and find Doctor Warren. He discovers that Rab was seriously injured in the attack just as he’d feared and finds him resting. Rab gives Johnny his musket saying that he regrets that he never got to fire it. He asks Johnny to find his family but when Johnny goes to the boy’s house no one is there. Defeated, Johnny returns to find that Rab has died. He sent him away because he did not want Johnny to watch him die.
In his grief, Johnny finally lets Doctor Warren examine his injured hand. Warren discovers that the only thing fusing his thumb to his palm is some scar tissue and that he can probably free the thumb without too much trouble. Johnny will be able to fire a gun after this although he will probably never be able to be a silversmith again. While Warren readies for the surgery, Johnny takes a walk and watches his people prepare for war, feeling an intense love for his country grow within him.
Johnny Tremain – the protagonist of the novel. The unacknowledged son of a wealthy family, Johnny is a 14 year old boy who begins the story working as a silversmiths apprentice. After Johnny is wounded too badly to continue working, he takes a job as a newspaper delivery boy and becomes a spy for the Whig party. Johnny’s main sin in the beginning of the novel is arrogance and anger. He bullies the other apprentices and sees himself as the best silversmith in the city despite Mr. Lapham’s constant advice to be humble like a good Christian should be.
After Johnny is wounded, his whole world view shatters. No longer able to do the job that he has trained for and built his life around, he flounders somewhat, falling into a depression that he is only pulled out of when he meets Rab and begins working for the newspaper. Johnny’s love of Rab is different than his love for the other people in his life. Rab is the first person to have a calming influence on Johnny and Johnny begins molding his personality to match Rab’s more calm and stoic energy. When Johnny loses Rab he is devastated but at the same time he is pleased that he will soon be able to fight for his country and his friend’s memory.
Rab Silsbee – the newspaper boy who becomes Johnny’s best friend. Rab is two years older than Johnny and more mature. He is unusually kind to Johnny even after first meeting him, going out of his way to help the boy with his legal troubles after he is arrested. Rab is a member of the Whig party and the Sons of Liberty group. He is excited and eager to fight for his country when the war begins, leaving early so that he may escape Boston before the British arrive and lock it down. Rab is charitable until the end, sending Johnny away on a fake errand as he dies so that his friend will not have to watch him die. In Rab’s memory, Johnny decides to fight for his country with his gun.
Priscilla Lapham – the middle daughter of the Lapham family. Cilla is originally somewhat betrothed to Johnny as her mother wishes her to marry him. She has a playful and flirtatious relationship with the boy that is ultimately rooted in deep understanding. Even after Johnny gets wounded, Cilla does not view him differently despite the rest of her family doing so. Cilla is mostly devoted to her younger sister, Isannah who she leaves her home to live with in the Lyte’s house even though she will have to be a servant. When Isannah chooses to go to London with the fleeing Lyte’s Cilla is heartbroken but understanding.
Ester Forbes Biography
Ester Forbes was born on June 28th, 1891 in Westborough, Massachusetts. Forbes was the daughter of William Trowbridge and Harriette Merrifield who moved to Worcester, Massachusetts when she was only seven years old. She attended Bancroft school until 1909 when she began attending Bancroft Academy a junior college.
In 1916, she moved to Madison, Wisconsin to join her older sisters Katherine and Cornelia who were teaching and in graduate school, respectively. While in Wisconsin, she attended classes at the University of Wisconsin and eventually joined the editorial team at the Wisconsin Literary Magazine. In 1919, after returning to Worcester, she began working for the editorial team at Houghton Mifflin Company. For several years in the early 1920’s, she wrote articles for the Boston Evening Transcript.
In 1926, she married Albert L. Hoskins Jr. an attorney. The couple moved to New York City where she published her first novel, “O Genteel Lady!” that same year. The book was a success and was selected for the Book of the Month Club a subscription based service that is still running today. In 1928, her second novel, “A Mirror for Witches” was released. Several years later she divorced her husband and began writing under her maiden name, Esther Forbes. Forbes moved back to Worcester in 1933 and lived with her mother who often helped her research her novels.
Throughout the late 1930s, Forbes published three more novels, “Miss Marvel” (1935), “Paradise” (1937) and “The General’s Lady” (1938), all of which were set in colonial New England. In 1942, Forbes published a biography of Paul Revere for which she received a Pulitzer Prize for History. The following year she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Clark University.
The same year, Forbes’ best known work, “Johnny Tremain” was published. The book was heavily praised and awarded. Forbes went on to publish two more novels before her death from rheumatic heart disease on August 12, 1967 in Worcester, Massachusetts.