Study Guide

Johnny Tremain Language and Communication

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Language and Communication

Madge and Dorcas never cared even to try to read. Mrs. Lapham could not so much as write her name. "Book larning," she declared, "scalded no pigs." Cilla was so anxious to learn (and teach Isannah) that whenever Johnny read she leaned over the book and shaped the words to herself as he said them. They sat beside each other at table. To help her Johnny always kept a finger on the lines as he read. (1.2.10)

This is one of the first times we see some quality in Cilla that sets her apart from the rest of the Lapham family. Why do you think Cilla is so anxious to learn to read?

The Laphams took no newspaper, but he had heard Mr. Lapham speak of the wicked Observer and how it was trying to stir up discontent in Boston, urging the people to revolt against the mild rule of England. The comical little painted man looked so genial, so ready to welcome anyone, that Johnny stepped in.


He saw the squat, buglike printing press, the trays of type, the strings on which printed sheets were hung to dry like clothes on a line. On a workbench was a smaller press for notifications, proclamations, broadsides, trade cards. Everything smelled of printers' ink. (3.1.16,18)

The Boston Observer's image is rather silly, especially when compared to the newspaper's serious purpose. Why might Uncle Lorne have chosen this image for his newspaper? How does it affect how you view the Boston Observer?

Johnny was disappointed when Rab told exactly how he had got Cilla to court that day. It was not half so exciting a story as Johnny had expected. Rab had simply shown Mrs. Lapham a letter signed by Governor Hutchinson and stamped with the Great Seal of the Colony. It had been sent to Mr. Lorne, commanding him and the other printers of Boston to quit their seditious, rebellious publications—or else. Mrs. Lapham could not read. All Rab had done was to take Cilla by the arm, unfurl the letter at Mrs. Lapham, point to the seal and say, "Governer's orders." (5.1.2)

This passage is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, we see how the ability to read gives Rab power over the illiterate Mrs. Lapham—and puts her at a serious disadvantage. Second, Rab uses something meant to hurt the rebellion as a tool. Are there any other points in the novel where the Whigs use something meant to stop them as a tool to fan the flames of rebellion?

He spent his time exercising his horse, unless he got an order to ride express for the Afric Queen, in learning to write with his left hand, and an orgy of reading. Mr. Lorne had a fine library. It was as if Johnny had been starved before and never known it. He read anything—everything. […] It was a world of which he had never guessed while living with the Laphams, and now he remembered with gratitude how his mother had struggled to teach him so that this world might not be forever closed to him. How she had made him read to her, when he would rather have been playing. Poor woman! Her books had been few and mostly dull. (5.2.33)

Johnny is a pretty smart dude. What are some reasons he might have been unaware of the joys of reading when he lived with the Laphams? Why has he only now begun to care about reading?

On Sundays the boys might relax a little, breakfast when they pleased, only they must turn up clean and shining in time to go to church with Aunt and Uncle and listen to the inflammatory Reverend Sam Cooper. Doctor Cooper was putting more politics than gospel into his sermons that fall and more fear of "taxation without representation" than God into his congregation. (6.1.1)

This is one of only a few points in the book where speeches are directly addressed. We don't hear much directly about religious life in the novel, but we do get the sense that certain churches have different political views than other churches, and that comes out in the sermons. How might the sermons at Mr. Lapham's church differ from those at the Lornes's church?

"Look you, Johnny. I know it's Lord's Day, but there's a placard I must have printed and posted secretly tonight. The Sons of Liberty will take care of the posting, but Mr. Lorne must see to the printing. Could you run across and ask him to step over? And Rab—where's he?"


When Johnny got back with Mr. Lorne, Rab had Mr. Adams's text in his hands, reading it as a printer reads, thinking first of spacing and capitals, not of the meaning.

"I can set that in no time. Two hundred copies? They'll be fairly dry by nightfall."

"Ah, Mr. Lorne," said Adams, shaking hands, "without you printers the cause of liberty would be lost forever." (6.1.8, 16-18)

Interesting thought: Sam Adams shows up on Sunday and asks the people at the Boston Observer to Sabbath break and nobody bats an eye. How does this differ from Johnny's earlier experience with Sabbath breaking the day of his accident? Why does Adams give so much credit to printers?

"Uncle Lorne is upset. He says the printers will not be able to go on with the newspapers. He won't be able to collect subscriptions, or get any advertising. He won't be able to buy paper nor ink."

"He's sending the Webb twins home?"

"Yes. Back to Chelmsford. But he and I can manage. The Observer is to be half-size. He won't give up. He'll keep on printing, printing and printing about our wrongs—and our rights—until he drops dead at his press—or gets hanged." (7.1.9-11)

Rab and Johnny discuss the fate of the Boston Observer after the port of Boston is closed in retaliation for the Boston Tea Party. What wrongs and rights is Mr. Lorne determined to print about? What does he have that's so important to say that he'll risk being hanged?

The dispatch bag of newspapers fell to the ground at the feet of the burly half-shaved shirt-sleeved officer.

"Let's see what sort of sedition this rogue is bringing in among His Majesty's loyal troops." His face, behind lather, darkened as he glanced at the paper in his hands. "Sedition. Incitement to rebellion. Why if it isn't that damned Boston Observer. If I were Gage I'd hang the printer of it and this young imp as well. Boy, you're going to get a horsewhipping. Perhaps you still are allowed to peddle such lies about the streets of Boston, but not among the ranks of His Majesty's First Brigade. Sergeant Clemens—thirty lashes on his bare back." (9.3.4-5)

This scene occurs when Goblin gets spooked as Johnny takes a shortcut across Boston Common. Johnny has done this a million times before and it's never been a problem, but this time he runs into the wrong British officer. Why is the officer so angry? What do you think of the punishment he metes out? Consider the officer's position.

"You tell your master," said Pumpkin, "those papers went where they'll do a deal of good."

"The British regulars?"

"Yep. Lots of 'em are Whigs, you know. Lots of 'em, just like in England, are on your side." (9.3.13-15)

What kind of good might the newspapers do among the British regulars? Why might many people in the British army and in England be Whigs? Is this surprising?

"Cilla, just as soon as the Unicorn sails, you go to the Lornes and tell 'em to come right up and settle in."

The girl nodded.

Johnny said, "If he can get his little press to working again, I think he might like to bring that with him—go on with his 'sedition,' as they call it. He just about has to print."

"We can hide his press, too. Nobody would dare hunt here for sedition—not after what Gage promised." (11.5.20-23)

This is a good deal for Cilla and Mrs. Bessie, who need help looking after the Lytes's house, and a good deal for the Lornes, who need a safe place to hide out for a while. We think it's pretty funny that the Lytes's place is about to become a hotbed of Whig activity—probably not their favorite idea, but hey—you move, you lose.

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