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21 April 2010

Book Review: Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain
by Esther Forbes


I used to read this book about once a year when I was a kid. I still enjoy it. As an adult reader, I find the characters a little shallow and not filled out but as a child I don't recall feeling that any of the people in Johnny's world, including Johnny, were slightly one-dimensional.

But one of the things that makes this an important book is that it puts a human face on history. Even if it can be perceived as a whiny face, Johnny is involved in all those things you read about in history books. The powdered-wig portraits of the founding fathers and revolutionary leaders come a bit alive. Not too alive, mind you. But enough alive that the next time you discover them in your history book, you can imagine how Doc Warren rolled his eyes at Otis and how Hancock, despite all of his frills and ego, had the country's best interests at the forefront of his priorities. Of course, Forbes wasn't there and fictionalizing history is always problematic but, for a kid, interested in history or not, Boston in 1776 comes alive. And that's important.

There are big themes here that appeal to my adult sense of what kids should know and think about. Forbes does a fantastic job of humanizing the conflict; the British soldiers are people too. Some of them are nice and kind and generous. But they are the enemy. How does one justify that? And, by extension, how does one justify war?

Big ideas for little kids but good ideas. And Forbes doesn't pussy-foot around them or make them easier to grasp and understand. She presents them, in all their complex glories, and then leaves them again. The reader must decide for himself how to feel about the British soldier who taught Johnny how to jump hurdles on a horse who also ends up as part of the British command at the battles at Lexington and Concord.

The book ends just as the war starts but Forbes does enough with the futility of dying in war mixed with the reason they chose to die (so that a man can stand up) that one can surmise how her telling of the whole war would have gone. Forbes treads a thin and nebulous line. Which is good, because war isn't black and white. There are no absolute answers. And even though it's a book for kids, Forbes doesn't try to create absolute answers.

And a book that doesn't talk down to kids, presenting them with adult themes while teaching them valuable moral and human lessons, is sorely needed in this day and age where senseless violence is everywhere our children look. And in that sense, too, it is an important book.