Tuesday, November 06, 2007

JOHNNY TREMAIN by Esther Forbes

The Book: Esther Forbes, JOHNNY TREMAIN. Dell paperback reprint (tenth Laurel-Leaf printing), 1974; originally published in 1943. Previous owner's name ("Amy Moss") written in permanent marker on front cover and in ink inside the front cover; current owner's initials ("ECL 1980") written on title page. Fair condition; book is cocked, spine is badly creased, pages are brown and cover's starting to chip. But the book is intact and readable.
First read: 1975
Owned since: 1980 (thanks to my 14-year-old self for making it easy!)

Hundreds would die, but not the thing they had died for.

A man can stand up ...

It's Election Day. Even if nothing on the ballot is important to you this year, you should exercise the right that the fictional characters of JOHNNY TREMAIN fought -- and yes, died -- for.

If you haven't read JOHNNY TREMAIN, are we friends? Maybe you didn't grow up in this country. If you missed it somehow, log off, read the book, come back later and we'll just go on as if nothing had happened.

I read it for the first time the summer I was nine. The copy belonged to Evelyn, the middle sister of the family who lived next door; Evelyn was a high school student who sometimes babysat us. She was smart and talented and she lent me books, which I appreciated. I held on to her copy of JOHNNY TREMAIN until she had to ask me to give it back. I bought this copy at Norfolk Academy's Field Day book sale when I was 14; Amy Moss, the book's previous owner, was a grade behind me, and had already decided she'd outgrown it. Her loss.

It's the story of Boston apprentice silversmith Johnny Tremain (duh), who loses his position after burning his hand terribly in a work-related accident. He finds a job as a printer's assistant on a newspaper published by the Sons of Liberty, and becomes caught up in the events that lead to the first shots fired at Lexington in April 1775.

It's a book for adolescents about adolescents, and was the first book I read that showed young people caught up in adult emotions -- not only love and hate, but also economic anxiety, class warfare, ambition, pride, patriotism and grief. It may have been the first serious book I ever read with an unhappy ending, and yet the ending is hopeful, too.

The Disney movie, shown on TV the following year in honor of the bicentennial, was my first experience with the bitter disappointment of lousy screen adaptations. I haven't seen it since I was a child, but I remember it as being 1) unfaithful to the book and 2) embarrassingly bad. I've since learned that screen adaptations do sometimes need to leave or change the source material, but to do so for the sake of a lousy movie is unforgivable.


Anonymous said...

Even now that book is burned in my memory--maybe literally. The scene in which he injures himself was so vivid and evocative to me at the time that even today I remember the sensation of him fainting. Yes, it's a great book, but not having read it for decades, the part that stuck with me was that incident (and its impact on Johnny.) Funny how some things remain from books read many years ago.


AnswerGirl said...

As I reread this post I realize that of course JOHNNY TREMAIN was not the first serious book I ever read that had an unhappy ending -- CHARLOTTE'S WEB was. But Mom read that to Kathy and me first, so I was slightly better prepared.

I read a couple of other sad books before JOHNNY TREMAIN, but the observation stands; it was still one of the first books I read that dealt with the shock of unexpected death in a realistic way.