Johnny Tremain has long been a staple in the classroom. Winner of the 1943 Newbery Medal, the novel is an outstanding example of historical fiction. So successful is author Esther Forbes at bringing to life the people, places, and events leading up to the American Revolution, that the novel is often read in conjunction with the study of the American Revolution in history classes. Some students will derive more lasting knowledge from the vivid adventures of the fictional Johnny Tremain than from any history textbook! Published during WWII, Johnny Tremain shows the way young people are caught up in and shaped by war and the forces of change that it brings. The novel invokes patriotism without glamorizing war and gives a balanced portrayal of the humanity of both sides engaged in the conflict.
Much of Johnny Tremain’s enduring popularity rests in its meticulous attention to historical detail. The world of 18th century Boston comes to life in Forbes’s story, as do a number of famous historical events and figures. The novel includes minute details about the Boston Tea party, Paul Revere’s famous midnight ride, and the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Historical figures include Sam Adams, Paul Revere, Robert Newman, James Otis, Dr. Joseph Warren, Dr. Benjamin Church, Josiah Quincy, John Hancock, William (Billy) Dawes, the Reverend Samuel Cooper, Governor Hutchinson, General Gage, and General Earl Percy. Students should be aware that Johnny, the Laphams, the Lytes, and the Silsbees/Lornes are fictional, but that most other characters with both first and last names are based on real people. For this reason, Johnny Tremain pairs nicely with history classes and/or research assignments. Students may benefit from learning a little background on the pivotal players and events.
The various trades depicted in Johnny Tremain also add historical realism to the novel. When the novel opens, Johnny is a silversmith. Because this profession is little known today, students will benefit from a little background on it. Youtube includes several helpful videos on blacksmiths, though not silversmiths. Teachers might also preview the following trade-specific vocabulary used in the novel: smith, crucible, ingot, anvil, hood, cast, annealing furnace. Historically, Paul Revere was a famous silversmith, and additional information can be found in researching him. The Paul Revere Memorial Association provides helpful information, including photos of Revere’s surviving silver work.
The importance of printers in fomenting revolutionary fervor is also clearly conveyed in Johnny Tremain. The Observer’s Club, which meets in the loft above Uncle Lorne's print shop, is based upon the real historical Long Room Club which met above the print shop of the Boston Gazette. The following link contains interesting background information on the Long Room Club and its members (many of which were included in Forbes’s Observer’s Club) along with a number of related primary documents.
The print shop in which the meetings took place also has a useful website, which can be accessed at https://bostongazette.org/about.
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