A Good Coming-of-Age Story
While considered a classic in young adult and children’s literature, "Johnny Tremain" is probably not a book that many young adult students will be dying to borrow from the library or buy from a local bookstore. It is an older book about historical events and the Newbery Medal Award winner from 1944, so it’s not the newest, shiniest, most desirable piece of YA lit on the market. However, the age of this book does not diminish its high quality or its value as a great piece of historical fiction.
"Johnny Tremain" is the story of a boy’s coming-of-age in a time of national revolution and upheaval. The story begins during the days before the American Revolutionary War in the town of Boston; tension between the American colonies and Britain is becoming tauter and conflict draws nearer as the novel begins. At first, Johnny Tremain is not very interested in the hostilities between Britain and the colonies; he’s more concerned with his hoity-toity position as the best silversmith’s apprentice in the Lapham household. His skill at his trade makes him quite arrogant at first, like a proud little rooster, and he lords over the other two apprentices, much to their irritation. His bullying of his fellow apprentices and his pride are two major factors that lead up to the accident that causes him to lose his cherished ability to work with silver. An outcast and a burden in a household that once held him up as a treasured asset, Johnny is forced to look for work elsewhere. He eventually befriends an apprentice who works for a Whig (rebel) newspaper and ends up working for the paper himself as a newspaper deliverer. Johnny slowly becomes a part of the rebellion against England, joining in on recognizable historical events and eventually becoming a rather important part of the war effort in some ways. He grows from a prideful, brash firebrand of a boy with no future into a respectable, helpful young rebel who is ready to fight, hopeful about his own life and the birth of the new nation and ideals he’s come to love and appreciate.
Out of the cast of characters, Johnny and Cilla Lapham, his childhood friend and, later, love interest, grow up the most over the course of the novel. As the main character of a coming-of-age novel, Johnny’s evolution from boy to young man is easy to see throughout the book and is quite fun to trace. Cilla is a side character but important in her own right as the most prominent female character. She changes from a young girl who dotes on her silly, selfish little sister into a brave and loyal young woman who is independent and steadfast. The romance between Johnny and Cilla is light and well done, and it is not the focus of the novel but a good side plot. Other characters are notable and make an impression on the reader, such as noble Rab, boisterous Mrs. Lapham, tiresome Mr. Tweedie and posh Lavinia Lyte. Paul Revere, John Hancock and Doctor Joseph Warren also step out of history and into the novel; it is easier to see them as real people instead of the distant and austere Founding Fathers after reading Forbes’ work. Even some of the British characters were portrayed as sympathetic and admirable. The setting is vividly realized, and the reader can feel immersed in smells, sounds and sights of 18th century Boston.
"Johnny Tremain" may not appeal to some YA readers, mostly those who like thrilling, fast-paced works. Forbes’ writing style might feel antiquated and possibly stiff to some readers, and there also seems to be a general lack of interest in this particular historical period. Others will immensely enjoy the detailed view into Pre-Revolutionary times and the start of the Revolutionary War through the life of a boy becoming a man. I thought it was a good read, and I would recommend it for middle schoolers, especially those interested in history and wars.