‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past.
The first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post is a review of one of my childhood favorite books set during the Revolutionary War: Johnny Tremain!
Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes: Book Review
There’s something emotionally vulnerable about re-visiting a book you really liked as a kid. There’s always the chance that the story you found moving and engrossing back then will not, for whatever reason, have withstood the test of time. Stories that seemed fresh and exciting to you at that age might be riddled with tropes or clichés you’d spot easily now. Things that were horrifying and nightmare inducing might seem laughably goofy when viewed through adult eyes etc. etc.
So when I decided to reread a childhood favorite, Johnny Tremain, a novel about a young silversmith in Revolutionary War era Boston, my expectations were fairly low. I remember enjoying it a lot as a kid and even renting the 1957 Disney film adaptation of it (and not liking that at all). But, after rereading this book last week, I can confidently say that Johnny Tremain lived up to my fond memories of it.
So I’ll start with some of the strengths of this book and then get into where I think it falls somewhat short.
Firstly, the characterization is excellent throughout. Our titular character of Johnny Tremain is a generally unpleasant (in my opinion) but wholly believable young man. He is prideful, sullen, self-pitying, as well as being talented, clever, and generally well-liked by those around him. His whole sense of self is shattered at the beginning of the book when a life altering injury means that he can no longer pursue his chosen career path as a silversmith and the rest of the novel – which is definitely a bildungsroman – can be seen as Johnny’s search for purpose. It’s a classic premise featuring a hero with a classic flaw (hubris) who must redeem himself. But what really brings it to life are the characters.
Johnny becomes enamored with his cool, older, died-hard Whig friend Rab, who offers him a job at a ‘seditious’ rebel printing press. I loved little moments like when Johnny walks in on Rab chatting with Johnny’s close friend/potential love interest Cilla:
‘As (Johnny) came in, booted and spurred, sunburned and hatless, Cilla glanced at him. Her eyes were happy (…) she had been having such a good time with Rab; and unconsciously and unreasonably Johnny stiffened. He couldn’t see why she and Rab should have been having such a good time.’
Moments like this, of completely believable teenage rivalries and petty jealousies, were so vivid and helped me understand why this book has become such a classic. It actually won the Newbery Medal in 1944, the highest prize for children’s lit in the US. Johnny comes across as a realistic teenage boy and an engaging character; we see the revolution through his eyes.
Another other huge strength of the book is the vividness of the historical setting. The depth of Forbes’ knowledge of the period is evident, but never intrusive, and overall there’s a sharp, dangerous edge to her depiction of Boston. In the first paragraph we see gulls in Boston Harbour, with ‘icy eyes’ spying ‘the first dead fish, first bits of garbage around the ships and wharves, they began to scream and quarrel.’ The threat of impending violence is often subtly woven into the descriptions of place, like when Johnny and Rab see a cow on the Boston Common walking through autumn leaves: ‘a white cow was plodding, seemingly up to her belly in blood’. Later, in the same paragraph, the clouds are described as hurrying across the sky like ‘sheep before invisible wolves.’
Violence does, of course, arrive, in the last third of the book, when the Shot Heard Round the World is fired in Lexington and the Revolution starts in earnest. But, for me, this is the part where the book falls down. The focus shifts from Johnny’s relationships and personal development to the movements of the British troops in Boston and their plans to seize the patriot militia’s gunpowder. It’s all accurate but just not as interesting.
This is perhaps a personal preference, but I would have liked to have seen more focus, at the end of the book, on how Johnny had grown as a person (I mean, this is a coming of age story after all, right? It’s sort of what we’re conditioned to expect!). Yet it doesn’t seem like he’s grown that much at all and the whole thing becomes too focused on the war. Rather than Johnny simply finding A Purpose externally at the end (spoiler alert: it’s ‘Fighting for Independence’), I wanted to see evidence of how he had changed internally as well. Has he become more self-aware, or less prideful, or…something?
I felt that the first half of the book – a quiet, character study of a young boy ejected from his old life who is forced to build a new one – was at odds with the second half – the story of a boy who gets to meet all the cool Revolutionary heroes and be a bystander at famous events (And there are many cameos here: Paul Revere, James Otis, Samuel Adams…basically if they were a famous Whig in Boston during this time, Johnny hung out with them). So the ending overall was too much Revolution, not enough Johnny Tremain.
BUT, that being said, the teenage characters were vivid, the prose was excellent, and I liked how it emphasized that Johnny thinks of himself as a young Englishman, as a young boy in Boston probably would have at the time. He also forges friendships with various British soldiers and officers stationed in Boston (including a young man called ‘Pumpkin’ who wants to desert the army and whose tragic storyline provides one of the most emotionally impactful moments in Johnny’s life and in the book).
So overall, I’d recommend it. Especially to young readers (this would probably be considered Middle Grade now, although Johnny does reach the age of 16 by the end, which would make it more YA). If you enjoy Boy Goes on an Adventure with some Colorful Characters books, like Treasure Island or Huck Finn, you’ll probably enjoy Johnny Tremain. Other Middle Grade/YA books about this period that I’d recommend (and might very well do separate posts on later) are Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing by MT Anderson, and, of course, anything by Ann Rinaldi.
Let me know what you think of Johnny Tremain, if you’ve ever read it (as a kid or adult!) or any experience you have of re-visiting a childhood favorite book, movie, TV show etc. I hope it went as well for you as re-reading Johnny did for me. Til then, I remain
Your humble and obedient servant,
PS Why have I called this new series ‘Madeira Mondays?’ Well, people in early America drank Madeira, a fortified Portuguese wine, by the truckloads. George Washington had a particular affinity for it, but it was also enjoyed by Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin. And, when the Continental Congress signed of the Declaration of Independence, what wine did they toast to celebrate? Yup, you guessed it: Madeira. Basically, if you imagine a founding father, you might want to imagine him holding a glass of this wine. Cheers!