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.
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.
Esther Forbes's Goodreads Page
The author of Johnny Tremain died in 1967, well before the existence of the Internet in any recognizable form. Good thing being dead doesn't stop you from having a Goodreads page.
Minute Man National Historic Site
This is the official page for Minute Man National Historic Site, which is a park that commemorates and educates visitors about the Battles of Lexington and Cambridge. Want to see where the final chapter of Johnny Tremain happens? Give Minute Man National Historic Site a virtual visit.
Johnny Tremain on Foot
Johnny's burned hand doesn't keep him from hoofing it all over Boston, and now you can, too. Check out the Johnny Tremain walking tours to give your visit to Boston a literary flair.
Disney's Johnny Tremain (1957)
Yeah, that's a thing. We won't spoil it for you, but be warned that the movie is very different from the book in a number of key ways. Johnny still burns his hand, but the focus is less on the development of Johnny's character and more on the Sons of Liberty. The battles are bloodless and nobody gets hurt. Rab doesn't even die. So… there goes accuracy.
Narrative Loss and the Melancholic Reader of Johnny Tremain
In this January 2006 article in The Lion and the Unicorn, Eric L. Tribunella argues that Johnny Tremain is intentionally structured as a series of unfinished stories that leave the reader dissatisfied.
The Cracked Crucible of Johnny Tremain
In this June 1989 article in The Lion and the Unicorn, Hamida Bosmajian shows how Forbes changes elements of the hero quest to fit Johnny's situation and takes issue with the idea that young people should be willing to die for vague ideals.
Son of Liberty: Johnny Tremain and the Art of Making American Patriots
In this Fall 2008 article in Early American Studies, Neil L. York examines both Forbes's book and Disney's film and argues that both have the intention of training American young people to be patriots.
Johnny Tremain Trailer
This is a trailer for Disney's 1957 film version of Johnny Tremain. Even these short snippets show how different the movie is from the book. For one thing, in the movie, Johnny fights in the Battle of Lexington without a musket. We really thought you were smarter than that, Johnny.
Walt Disney Talks About Liberty Street
Apparently, Disney loved this book, because he based a whole section of Disneyland on it. He just didn't love it enough to make the movie remotely faithful to the book.
Johnny Tremain on Audible
Two audiobook versions of Johnny Tremain are available on Audible.
Johnny Tremain on A Book River
Here's another place to download a Johnny Tremain audiobook.
Cover for the First U.S. Edition
Is it just us, or does Johnny look entirely too serious and maybe a little sick?
Cover for the First U.K. Edition
What's up with that hair? We don't even know. Did everyone look like this in the 1940s or something?
Maps Galore of Colonial Boston
If you need to get your bearings in Johnny's world, check out these maps of Colonial Boston from the Boston Public Library.