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Literature / Johnny Tremain

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A Coming of Age Story set during the Revolutionary War, Esther Forbes' novel Johnny Tremain was a 1944 Newbery Medal winner and remains a popular reading assignment in American schools.

The titular character is a super-talented apprentice silversmith in Boston in 1773, whose bright future is seemingly ruined when he burns his hand at work. In need of a new life, he befriends a boy named Rab and finds himself swept up in the American independence movement.

Disney made a live-action film adaptation in 1957, complete with a song about the Liberty Tree ("It's a tall old tree and a strong old tree"). It was actually originally intended to be a Made-for-TV Movie – hence the low budget and no-name cast, apart from former child star Luana Patten (So Dear to My Heart, Song of the South) and British actor Sebastian Cabot – but it ended up getting a theatrical release instead.

Provides examples of:

  • As the Good Book Says...: Mr. Lapham pointedly makes Johnny read the Pride Before a Fall passage at breakfast in order to humiliate him, with Puritanically good intentions.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Among other things, Johnny participates in the Boston Tea Party and tips off Robert Newman to put two lanterns in the Old North Church belltower.
  • Brainless Beauty: Isannah, Cilla's little sister. She's so beautiful that people will stop to admire her and ask Cilla things like "Is that little angel your sister?" But as Johnny tells Rab, "She's just sort of a parrot. She's always going around repeating what Cilla or anyone else says to her as if she had thought it all up herself."
  • Break the Haughty: Having his hand maimed and destroying his ability to work in the trade he's trained in all his life dents Johnny's pride, but it's only becoming engaged in press work for the Observer that helps him grow into a better person.
  • Can't Hold His Liquor: Rab and Johnny get Dove drunk to get information out of him.
  • The Clan: The Lytes on one hand, as wealthy and decadently wicked merchants, and the Silsbees on the other as old-tyme farmers and decent folk.
  • Coming of Age Story: The book charts not only America growing into a new country, but Johnny growing from an arrogant boy into a wise, intelligent man.
  • Covers Always Lie: At least, the above cover is lying if the boy's supposed to be Johnny, since he can't use a gun. Though, the doctor promises he might be able to after Johnny resolves to get an operation at the end of the novel.
  • Death by Newbery Medal:
    • Well, there IS a war starting (and by ending the book when it did, they halved the body count). Dr. Warren was killed at Breeds/Bunker Hill shortly after the book ends, and, just as Otis predicts in the novel, he left his young family behind, though they thankfully did not literally starve, thanks to financial support from his fellow revolutionaries.
    • Rab's death, which is naturally eliminated from the Disney version.
  • Deliberately Cute Child: Isannah, bordering on Fille Fatale as she gets older and falls under Lavinia Lyte's influence.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: Johnny's hand screws him up before he grows a bit.
  • Establishing Character Moment: Johnny can tell that Rab is worth knowing the moment he steps into the printer's shop, and it's Rab's "intelligent remark" about Johnny's hand that cements it.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Lavinia Lyte may be spoiled, rich, and vain, but she's utterly devoted to her father and loves him more than anything.
  • Fallen Princess: How Johnny's mother, a Lyte girl, ended up hoping her son could grow up to be a master silversmith at best and dying of a vague disease.
  • Friendly Enemy:
  • Gone Horribly Right: Dove gives Johnny a cracked crucible to teach him some humility—and boy, did Johnny learn some after that.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: While the American colonists are generally shown to be in the right, and the British government to be mismanaging and mistreating them, the book goes out of its way to establish Parliament's flawed reasoning rather than attributing their actions to malice, and heavily humanizes the British military that occupies Boston. Johnny struggles all book with the thought of one day having to kill good men serving a bad cause, while Rab's unwillingness to do so is treated as a chilling character flaw. Furthermore, while most of the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Observers are shown in a very positive light, Sam Adams in particular is portrayed as a rabble-rouser with an axe to grind, caring less about any high-minded ideals than starting a ruckus for ruckus's own sake. He is the only Observer who treats Otis with impatience and rudeness, and who is utterly unmoved by the man's Rousing Speech.
  • Heroic BSoD: Johnny goes through this stage after injuring his hand.
  • Hidden Depths: Rab seems like a calm and calculating person, but he is capable of great passion. And while everyone thinks of James Otis as a rambling nonentity, he proves them all wrong with his Rousing Speech.
  • Historical Domain Character: Such figures as Samuel Adams, Josiah Quincy, and Paul Revere have minor roles.
  • Hot-Blooded: Johnny's main character flaw besides arrogance.
  • Idiot Ball: A desperate and cash-strapped Johnny tries to sell his heirloom cup to Mr. Lyte after being accused and acquitted of theft, figuring he'd pay more than the cup was worth. Lyte instead takes the cup, has him thrashed while ordering his two clerks to be ready to swear false witness if Johnny tries to take it to court again, and then has him thrown out.
  • In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous: Founding Fathers and their associates abound; obviously this is justified to an extent, but we get to know Paul Revere, John Hancock and Josiah Quincy before the impending Revolution becomes even slightly relevant to Johnny's life.
  • Irony: Meta example: The movie was directed by an Englishman, Robert Stevenson.
  • It's All Junk: Johnny gets a chance to take his cup back when the Lytes get run out of town, but by that point he's moved on.
  • Jerkass: Johnny, even after having his hand maimed, is a pill before meeting Rab and working for the Observer.
  • Leaning on the Furniture: One of Rab's main assets in life seems to be the ability to appear casual in any situation.
  • Long-Lost Relative: Johnny is one to the Lytes, which the family patriarch is not thrilled to admit.
  • Metaphorgotten: Parodied. After Johnny and Cilla start growing closer, Johnny receives an apple from her and starts to view it as a symbol of his relationship with her, watching it to see if it will ripen or grow stale. Rab eats the apple when Johnny's not looking, though, and is confused at why Johnny is so angry at him for doing so. He offers to buy him more apples and claims it was rotten anyway.
  • Mook–Face Turn: Pumpkin, a British soldier whom all the Whig characters are friendly with. He lends one of them his rifle, and is ultimately shot for it.
  • Nephewism: Rab's parents are dead, so he lives with his aunt and her husband (to whom he is apprenticed).
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Johnny is an orphan; his first surrogate family is the Laphams, as he is apprenticed to the family patriarch and expected to marry Cilla once they're old enough, so he can inherit the business. Later he is taken in by Rab and his family. Meanwhile, his actual extended family, the Lytes, want nothing to do with him.
  • Orphan's Plot Trinket: Downplayed. Johnny's heirloom silver cup from his mother gives him a connection to the Lyte family, but while he ultimately does learn about his family history from Lavinia, by the time he does he's moved on from that part of his life and become his own man.
  • Pride Before a Fall: Johnny starts the novel full of himself as his master's star pupil, to the point that his master tries reading a relevant Bible verse to him on the subject. When he defies his master's wishes and tries to finish an order by working on Sunday, he ends up maiming one of his hands, such that he can't practice the silversmith trade any longer.
  • Reading The Enemy's Mail: The Whig faction intercepts messages between British troops within Boston.
  • The Resenter: Dove, one of the less-capable apprentices at the silversmith shop, who deliberately uses a damaged crucible when Johnny tries to work on a Sunday to take him down a peg, accidentally leading to his permanent maiming.
  • Rich Bitch: Lavinia Lyte, the wealthy Mr. Lyte's daughter, is a scion of wealth and privileged, and also a haughty and stuck-up jerk who takes Isannah in when her family can no longer afford to care for her and spoils her into a manipulative Fille Fatale.
  • Rousing Speech: Otis, the night before the rebellion begins in earnest, warns the assembled members of the Observer Club that what's coming will demand their fortunes, even their lives, and that it won't just be a matter of sociopolitical bickering, but a sign that "a man can stand up;" an inspiration to oppressed and mistreated peoples all over the world that they don't have to resign themselves to their lot.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Johnny starts the novel figuring he's probably marry Cilla one day to keep the family business in the family. Over the course of the story, he's shocked to realize he's getting more and more attracted to her.
  • The Stoic: Rab very rarely shows any emotion throughout the story.
  • Villainous Widow's Peak: Johnny, though the text actually describes it as a mark of feminine beauty and wisdom. It seems the trope has changed a bit over time.
  • Will They or Won't They?: Johnny and Cilla's mutual crush never gets a resolution, nor, for that matter, do Rab's attempts to win her. The latter's death cuts it short though.