Ask anyone who read Johnny Tremain several decades ago, and we guarantee they'll remember one thing: it's about an apprentice silversmith in Colonial Boston who burns his hand really, really badly on molten silver. To give Esther Forbes credit, it's a memorable image. It's like when Viserys gets molten gold poured on his head in A Game of Thrones, but with less royal infighting and more workplace injury.
So what's a silversmith who can't make silver stuff anymore to do? Find a new job, of course. But in Boston in 1773-1775, that's not so easy. What is easy is starving to death—no workman's comp laws, remember? Shmoop doesn't go for lying down and admitting defeat, and neither does our pal Johnny. And neither do America's Founding Fathers, many of whom play very visible roles in Johnny's new life as rider, punch stirrer, tea chest chopper, and secret messenger for a group of Bostonians who are all about rebelling against the Mother Country. (That's England. Technically, it's Great Britain, but they call it England throughout the book.)
What's interesting is that Esther Forbes published Johnny Tremain in 1943, when the United States was in the middle of World War II, in which the United States and the United Kingdom (yet another way to refer to Great Britain) were allies. But that's okay because Forbes makes it clear that England is not the real enemy—the real enemy is any government that threatens the liberty of its people or just doesn't stand up for them. So, in a roundabout way, Johnny Tremain is partly about the importance of workman's comp laws.
Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal in 1944 and has never been out of print. It often shows up on reading lists from elementary school to college—hey, this book has serious range—which might be because Forbes brings her experience as an accomplished novelist for adults and a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian to the table. Johnny Tremain doesn't talk down to anybody.
Why Should I Care?
The answer to this question would have been obvious to Forbes's original readers in 1943. Thousands of U.S. servicemen and women had already died in World War II, and thousands more would die by the time the war ended in 1945. Forbes was writing to high school students who were about to trade their caps and gowns for combat boots, leaving home to fight a war they weren't one hundred percent sure they were going to win. Listen closely anytime the nation goes to war, and you'll hear quite a few voices asking why? Johnny Tremain is Forbes's attempt to answer that question—not only for her own generation, but for all generations.
We've already mentioned that England isn't the real enemy in Johnny Tremain—the threat to liberty is. It might seem odd to inspire a generation allied with Britain by reminding everyone of that time we really didn't get along. Awkward, right? Kind of like bringing up that fight you and your best friend had two years ago and trying to pretend didn't happen? That's not how Forbes rolls, though. Instead, she says, "Hey, check out all this awesome stuff we got from Britain. You know what Britain gave us? Us. We wouldn't be who we are without them, even if we did have to break away." Johnny Tremain is a reminder of how close the U.S. and the U.K. really are. That relationship isn't going anywhere anytime soon, and thank goodness for that, because we love our BBC America.
If you're hearing blah, blah, politics, blah, blah, hang on. Johnny Tremain is about much more than that. Let's look at Johnny himself. Johnny Tremain—the character, not the novel—loses his ability to do the one thing he loves most on earth; and not only that, but it's the one thing he's best at too. Being an awesome silversmith is his entire identity, and he loses it, so he has to reinvent himself from the ground up. Ever known (or been) a pitcher who blew out a shoulder? Johnny knows what that's like.
Let's talk about Johnny's family for a minute. He lost his mother at eleven and never knew his father, so a lot of Johnny's journey is about figuring out who he is and how much his relatives play into that. Got some relatives you miss, some you wish you'd known, and some you're not so proud of? So does Johnny. He also has a massive crush on one of them, but hey, that's okay in the eighteenth century.
Johnny also passes through that all-important phase of maturity: the part where he learns how to treat other people. If you're a naturally nice person, accept our sincere thanks. But if you have to work at not snapping at people who don't move fast enough, at being patient with those who aren't as good at silversmithing (or whatever) as you are, or at keeping your temper in general, read on. Johnny has been there.