The Newbery medallist for 1944, Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, is a historical novel about a young apprentice silversmith and is set in a Boston on the eve of the American Revolution. Forbes’ biography Paul Revere and the World He Lived In had won the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for history, and well, way to make the most of your obviously thorough research, Ms. Forbes.
At 14, the orphaned Johnny Tremain is a self-assured and driven boy. Before his mother died, she managed to teach him to read and write, arrange for his apprenticeship with a Mr. Lapham, silversmith, and also give him a silver cup with the Lyte family crest, telling him that if he were ever in dire straits to go to the Lytes for help.
Mr. Lapham was once a fine craftsman, but is becoming too feeble and too interested in preparing to meet his Maker to really be in effective charge of his workshop. The other two apprentices besides Johnny don’t really have the ability for, or interest in, their work. Johnny, therefore, has all the insufferable cockiness of a kid who is economically invaluable and more able than everyone around him and knows it. Mr. Lapham’s widowed daughter-in-law has proposed that Johnny will eventually marry one of her four daughters in order to keep the shop in the family, and Johnny has no objection to marrying the third daughter, Cilla, who is clever, companionable, and his own age. Thus provided with insurance, skills, the opportunity to do work he loves, and the prospect of a bride and the ownership of an established business, Johnny is in a fair way to do well in life.
Then comes a tragic accident, and Johnny, who can no longer hope to be a silversmith, has nothing left but his pride and drive, and little food for either them or himself. The Laphams consider him a useless burden, and when he appeals to the Lytes, they accuse him of being a thief. After a long period of near despair and casting about for some worthwhile work that he can do, he does find some work as messenger and delivery boy for a newspaper. He learns to ride on a very difficult horse. He finds a friend in the newspaper’s typesetter Rab Silsbee, whom he looks up to and loves like a brother in a way only possible for those who don’t have any actual brothers, but more importantly, he finds a cause – the American Revolution.
This book – and the fact that I just previously reread L.M. Montgomery’s Rilla of Ingleside - got me thinking about the depiction of war in fiction. Doris Lessing, in her CBC Massey lecture “When in the Future They Look Back on Us” (as printed in Prisons We Choose to Live Inside), wrote:
In my time I have sat through many many hours listening to people talking about the war, the prevention of war, the awfulness of war, with it never once being mentioned that for large numbers of people the idea of war is exciting, and that when a war is over they may say it was the best time in their lives…. People who have lived through a war know that as it approaches, an at first secret, unacknowledged, elation begins, as if an almost inaudible drum is beating… an awful, illicit, violent excitement is abroad. Then the elation becomes too strong to be ignored or overlooked: then everyone is possessed by it.
Neither Forbes nor Montgomery shut their eyes to the excitement war generates. The stirring drumbeat of war is strong in both books. In Rilla of Ingleside, the little Glen community is energized and mobilized by the war. The characters in Rilla would have described themselves as primarily motivated by patriotism and duty, but they repeatedly marvel at their transformation from a people only interested in the gossip of their village to armchair military strategists. They work tirelessly and enthusiastically to “save and serve” by knitting socks, cutting back on sugar, and fundraising, and as Germany and Austria sue for peace near the end of the novel, one character wonders “if things won’t seem a little flat and insipid when peace really comes”.
In Johnny Tremain we find descriptions like “[a]ll over Boston was a feeling of excitement”, of men looking radiant and elated at the prospect of a fight, and of cheering crowds at the Boston Tea Party. But Forbes’ concept of war is far more nuanced and complex than L.M. Montgomery’s.
L.M. Montgomery, despite being an intelligent and well-read woman, was no less susceptible to propaganda than many people much less so and was sincerely convinced that World War I was a holy war. Again and again her characters describe themselves as fighting for an “idea” and against evil, to keep Canada safe and free from invaders, for a new world. They honestly believed that the Germans bayoneted babies and that Kitchener was some sort of military genius. The one man in their village who is anti-war and pacifist is also generally ignorant and a comic valentine, and is much persecuted. So many of these beliefs were so ridiculous, and even laughable, and it’s very telling that Montgomery never tells us what this “idea” is. We now know that WWI, far from being a righteous war, was simply a case of one imperialistic country picking a fight with another imperialistic country, and then a number of other countries jumping quite heedlessly into the fray. The Germans never had any notion of invading Canada, and never bayoneted babies. The pig-headed and inept Kitchener, who sent out many regiments of cavalry against tanks and was probably answerable for more Allied deaths than any single German officer, should have been court-martialled, not revered. And as for the new world, well, if it were ever in the offing it’s been very slow to arrive.
Esther Forbes’s Johnny Tremain isn’t anti-war. I doubt Forbes could have even got away with such a strain in her novel given that she wrote and published it during World War II. But being the historian she was, and writing from a distance of over 150 years (Rilla of Ingleside was published in 1920), and probably being of a less romantic, idealistic cast of mind, Forbes achieved a least some of the balance and perspective Montgomery totally lacked.
Johnny is fired up by the speechmaking of revolutionary groups and believes, rightly or wrongly, that he is fighting for freedom, so that “a man can stand up”. It’s a seemingly inevitable part of the American creed to believe this in every struggle, to the point where in a movie such as Independence Day there’s a lot of rhetoric about American freedom and independence and the characters seem to be idiotically blind and deaf to the fact that real issue seems to be one of mere survival for the entire human race. Johnny believes that he must join in the Revolution so that a man may stand up. Of course the issue of freedom for the slaves in the United States is not addressed – it would have thrown a significant curve into the fine sounding talk of freedom. And in fairness to Forbes, it’s only realistic that she should depict the American Revolutionaries this way. I do question whether it was really necessary for the Americans to battle the British for independence given that Canada and Australia have become autonomous without bloodshed, but never mind. Not every novel needs to address every moral question. And then too, sometimes, as Doris Lessing points out, we do need to acknowledge the attraction and benefits of war has for us if we’re ever to learn how to avoid it more often.
So perhaps it’s enough that Johnny may find his redemption in and be a believer in the Revolution, but is not a true believer. He gets to know some of the British officers and can’t help admiring and respecting some of them, and he’s all too miserably aware of the fact that though he himself is only a generation removed from England, that most Revolutionary-era Americans and the British are one people ethnically, and that though individually the British soldiers will be kind and decent to him, collectively they are his sworn enemies. He hears a street fight outside the door of the print shop where he works, and though he doesn’t lift a finger to help, he is sickened by the sounds of a number of Whigs beating a Tory who bravely tried to prevent them from attaching a placard to his shop. He is heartsick at the sight of both British and American wounded. Forbes does point out that the American newspapers were allowed to print whatever they wanted until the outbreak of war and that the tea tax amounted to very little, and she is honest about the twisted morality and human costs of war.
Johnny Tremain is excellent both in terms of being an adventure novel and one which traces the development and coming of age of a young boy, and it acknowledges both the bad and good things that can come of war and crippling injuries and a best friend’s attentions to a girlfriend formerly taken for granted. And I have to concede that’s probably enough ground for one book to cover.