Study Guide

Rab Silsbee in Johnny Tremain

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Rab Silsbee

Rab, the printer's apprentice at the Boston Observer, becomes Johnny's best friend.

The Big Brother

Rab is the big brother Johnny never had and never knew he needed, and even though Rab is also an only child, he's a natural at it. Being a leader and a protector is a huge part of who Rab is. While he's already well-known for leading the boys his age in the Sons of Liberty, he takes Johnny under his wing almost from the moment they meet, saving him (with Cilla's help) from the gallows and giving him a place to stay and introducing him to a new life.

Rab was so self-contained. It was as if nothing could come in from the outside to upset him. He owned himself. […] Johnny felt he knew him but little more than at their first meeting, but he admired him more and more all the time. (5.4.1)

In Rab, Johnny finds someone he truly admires and feels like he needs to live up to, which is a new experience for a certain arrogant apprentice.

The Patriot

He's not exactly Heath Ledger's character, Gabriel Martin, from the 2000 film The Patriot, but he could be. Rab is one of a long line of characters depicting young men of the Revolution who believe deeply in the cause of liberty and are willing to die for it.

"You want to go," Johnny accused him.

"Well, then—go!
"I'm going fast's I'm able." (10.2.14-17)

Rab doesn't necessarily love violence, but he wants the chance to strike a literal blow for what he believes in. We have to ask ourselves, though, if Rab really understands what battle will be like, since the Rab we meet dying in a Lexington tavern four days after he leaves Boston seems to have gained some understanding that was lacking in the Rab who ran off to join the fighting less than a week before.

The Regular Silsbee

Although Rab is an orphan, he has deep ties to his extended family out in Lexington. Unlike Johnny, his extended family accepts him, and a large part of Rab's identity comes from them. Over and over, Rab is described as a Silsbee, which seems to involve being outwardly stoic and emotionally hard to read. Aunt Jenifer says, "They don't tell anything, but they are about the best men ever lived. If you'll just learn to take 'em or leave 'em" (5.4.19). When Rab does show excitement, it's always intense, like at the dance at Silsbee's Cove or on the night of the Boston Tea Party. Anyone in whom the Silsbee genes are dominant has these qualities, including Aunt Jenifer's baby, Rabbit. This begs the question: nature or nurture? Are the Silsbees this way because of some genetic coding or because they copy each other's behavior?

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