1944 Newbery Medal: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Johnny Tremain is written by Esther Forbes. It was first published in 1943 by Houghton Mifflin. Find out more about Esther Forbes here.

Summary/Blurb:

“The year is 1773; the scene is Boston. Johnny Tremain is fourteen and apprenticed to a silversmith. He is gifted and knows it. He is gay and clever and lords it over the other apprentices until the tragic day when a crucible of molten silver breaks and Johnny’s right hand is so burned as to be useless. After a period of despair and humiliation, Johnny becomes a dispatch rider for the Committee of Public Safety, a job that brings him in touch with Otis, Hancock, John and Samuel Adams, and other Boston patriots, and with all the exciting currents and undercurrents that were to lead to the Tea Party and the Battle of Lexington. There, on the battlefield, he learns from Dr. Warren that his maimed hand can be cured so that he can use a musket and some day return to his trade.”

What I Liked:

So, this is probably one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve ever read for young people (although I haven’t read that many; most of the historical fiction that I’ve read consists of Dear America). Not only that, but it’s also a wonderful story of pride and humility, and it’s got some incredible dimensionality to its characters.

At the beginning, I strongly disliked Johnny because he was so arrogant and proud. Then I wanted to give him a hug, and then by the end all I could do was sit back and think, “Now that’s how you do character development.” Not many authors intentionally make their protagonist so unlikeable at the start, but I wish they would because it’s so fantastic to see that change in the protagonist from unlikeable to likeable.

I loved the portrayal of the British. I thought it was incredibly realistic that Johnny both liked and disliked them, that while he wanted them gone he realized how hard it was to make them go, that while the British had their “bad” moments there were also good ones, as well. There’s a great passage where (I think) Johnny and Rab are talking and while Rab is eager to start the fight, Johnny is more hesitant because he can’t see the British as targets yet. I loved that Forbes strayed from the “The British are EVIL AND MEAN” one-dimensionality that can be found in a lot of middle grade “villains.” I have to say, there was something about children’s authors who wrote in the 40s and 50s that just got realistic dialogue and scenes. Enright has it, Forbes has it, Pearce has it, Nesbit (early 1900s) has it. I love it.

This book made me want to see 1776 again.

What I Didn’t Like:

Johnny was so aggravating at the beginning. Really, he can only blame himself when he goes to Lyte a second time after everyone warns him not to and gets his cup taken away from him. Then again, he was still proud at that point.

Rating: 4/5

Recommended Age Range: 12+

Warnings: Violence, war, death.

Genre: Middle Grade, Historical Fiction

Passages/Quotes:

He was utterly unprepared for the sight of his hand when finally it was unwrapped and lay in the midwife’s aproned lap. Mrs. Lapham, Madge, Dorcas, all had crowded into the little birth and death room. Cilla and Isannah were in the kitchen, too frightened to go near him.

“My!” said Madge, “isn’t that funny-looking? The top part, Johnny, looks all right, although a little narrow, but, Johnny, your thumb ad palm have grown together.”

This was true. He bent and twisted his fingers. He could not get the thumb to meet the forefinger. Such a hand was completely useless. For the first time he faced the fact that his hand was crippled.

“Oh, let me see!” Dorcas was leaning over him. She gave her most elegant little screech of horror, just like a great lady who has seen a mouse.

“My!” said Mrs. Lapham, “that’s worse than anything I had imagined. Now isn’t that a shame! Bright boy like Johnny just ruined. No more good than a horse with sprung knees.”

~Forbes 35

James Otis was on his feet, his head close against the rafters that cut down into the attic, making it the shape of a tent. Otis put out his arms.

“It is all so much simpler than you think,” he said. He lifted his hands and pushed against the rafters.

“We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills…we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.”

~Forbes 180

Overall Review:

Johnny Tremain has such wonderful character development and portrayal, and there’s a realistic air to it that, so far, ranks it at the top of my historical fiction list. It has wonderful historicity and does a great job of showing both the Tory and the Whig side. The British are portrayed as humans rather than monsters and the ending has a great hopeful-bittersweet note. Fantastic all around.

You can buy this book here: Johnny Tremain

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