1944: Johnny Tremain (Pride Comes Before a Fall, and Starts a Revolution)

Cover of Johnny Tremain

VERDICT: Treasure?

Laurinda’s Rating: 3

The 1944 Newbery Medal Winner, Johnny Tremain, is a historical fiction novel set in early 1770’s Boston. The title character, Johnny, begins the novel as a precocious apprentice silversmith. He delights in his silversmithing skills, holding it over the other apprentices. Working on an order for John Hancock, one of the apprentices hands Johnny a cracked crucible. The molten metal spills and severely burns Johnny’s hand. He thrashes about in self-pitying anger after his hand heals, before accepting a position delivering newspapers for a Whig printer. Johnny quickly becomes involved in the anti-British movement, spying on the troops and running messages for prominent Whigs like Paul Revere. Following the Battle of Lexington, Johnny escapes from Boston and joins the militia (after a doctor slices the scar tissue on his hand, allowing Johnny full use of it once again).

The author creates a surprisingly balanced history of 1770’s Boston. It’s not “Whigs good, Tories bad”; instead, it focuses on why people make the choices they do and on the consequences of those choices. Johnny’s relative, a rich merchant who almost gets Johnny hanged and denies their relation, plays both sides because of the monetary drawbacks of picking an option; Merchant Lyte eventually repairs back to England, leaving Johnny whatever remains of his colonial possessions. The troops are ambivalent about their mission, as most prefer farming to war and sympathize with the lack of rights both they and the Bostonians have. In fact, until the actual shooting begins, Johnny is friends with several of the them, including an officer who teaches him how to jump his horse, Goblin.

Although Johnny is annoying at times (probably an artifact of being a 15-year-old, egotistical boy), the author creates a realistic trajectory of his growth and development. She also draws a strong supporting cast around him, illustrating home life in this era and depicting a wide swath of society. Female characters are largely depicted as opinionated, strong women who act for themselves. No damsels in distress here! I appreciated the author’s nuanced illustration of daily life in this tumultuous period and of the hard choices many families made. Overall, while the beginning of the book is a bit slow – and Johnny quite irritating – the character development and decent plot redeem the book. I would recommend this for late elementary or middle school kids who enjoy historical fiction (although my favorite character did get killed off…).

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