BY DAVID DUHR
[A new entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series will appear every Monday this summer. To keep up with this series or any other, check out our Special Features page.]
What follows is a sentence that nobody has written before, ever*:
Every time I hear Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting,” I think of Johnny Tremain.
When first presented with the phrase “I loved this book when,” my mind went straight to childhood. (As it usually does, being a not-ready-for-primetime adult.) I read a ton as a kid—the complete Hardy Boys, about 40% of Matt Christopher’s (100+) sports novels, the occasional Sweet Valley High, when I became curious about girls. But when I think of childhood books, Johnny Tremain marches straight to the front.
I reread it last week, and from the very first line—“On rocky islands gulls woke”—I knew this post would be based on a false premise: that I loved this book only at a specific time in my life. It’s just not true. I loved it as a child, I love it now, and I will always love it. In fact, if I hadn’t read Johnny Tremain, my life would probably look a lot different than it does now.
* * *
Richard Marx’s earth-shattering album Repeat Offender came out in May of 1989, and the singles were all over the radio. I was eleven, lying in the “way way back” of the family’s low-top conversion van on our way to St. Louis for a family reunion. Cilla Lapham had just given Johnny Tremain an apple to express her affections, while citizens all around Boston were gearing up for the coming revolution. I can’t remember if this was the first time I’d read the book, but it is the first time I can remember being riveted by something, anything.
Then “Right Here Waiting” came on the radio, and I was torn. I was at a key point in the book, but here was a song that I had grown infatuated with (sorry). The answer was simple—I would multitask. Read and listen, listen and read. By the time Richard Marx hit his thundering crescendo, the Boston Observers had decided that war was the only answer to the problem of “taxation without representation,” and James Otis was delivering his famous (and fictional) “A man can stand up” speech. The two will be forever tied in my memory.
But that’s my burden to bear.
In case you haven’t read it, or seen the shoddy film with its airbrushed quality and the typical Disney message that anything, even war, can be a hoot if you just smile about it, Johnny Tremain is the Newberry Award-winning tale of a young silversmith’s apprentice caught up in the events surrounding Revolutionary Boston. The title character is pretty much the best silversmith’s apprentice in the city, and he knows it. But while breaking the Sabbath to make a sugar basin for John Hancock, a cracked crucible leaks hot silver and Johnny’s hand gets caught in it.
Forced out of the house, and out of his raison d’etre, the crippled Johnny moves into the attic above the shops of the Boston Observer, a subversive newspaper. Here he becomes deeply involved in the underground movement to separate from England, and he meets and becomes a spy for the likes of Sam and John Adams, Paul Revere, and Joseph Warren.
Johnny takes part in the Boston Tea Party, has a key role in the “One if by land” incident, and all the while continues to woo Cilla Lapham, daughter of his former master. Johnny is just sixteen when “the shot heard ’round the world” is fired, but, as he learns, sixteen makes him “a boy in time of peace and a man in time of war.”
When I first read this book, I was younger than Johnny and looked upon him with envy. He was older and had a girlfriend, which was enough, but he also played a key role in some of American history’s major events. Meanwhile, I was just another suburban kid living wholly without intrigue or excitement. I had no revolution to be part of, no cause for which to fight. I’d never have a chance to meet Paul Revere and Co., much less walk the enchanting 1775 Boston streets that Forbes brings alive so masterfully.
It was Forbes who first planted the idea that I wanted to live in Boston. I just had to see it for myself. Johnny Tremain led to Cheers, Cheers led to me researching colleges, my research led to Emerson (the school, not the man who coined “the shot heard round the world”), and Emerson is where I met Nico… which has led to a great deal of irritation and sour feelings, an indomitable Beer Pong team, and a nagging obligation to provide content to this website.
If not for Johnny Tremain, that line about Richard Marx would have continued to not exist.
* * *
As I’ve grown older, and as I’ve continued to read Johnny Tremain into adulthood, the envy has remained. I’ll never be sixteen again. I’ll probably never have a revolution to be a part of, nor a life-or-death cause for which to fight. The intrigue and excitement have never materialized. I’ll never find myself in a secret attic, listening to a great man saying, “We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills… we fight, we die, for a simple thing. Only that a man can stand up.”
I did, however, get a chance to walk those streets that James Otis walked. I lived in the North End for a year, blocks away from Paul Revere’s house, the spire of the Old North Church (“two if by sea”) visible from my back courtyard. And I spent mornings watching the sun come up on Long Wharf, near where I first met Johnny Tremain by his “crooked little house at the head of Hancock’s Wharf on crowded Fish Street,” where in the mornings, from his attic window, he would look out over “counting houses, shops, stores, sails lofts, and one great ship after another, home again after their voyaging, content as cows waiting to be milked.”
It was almost enough.
* * *
This isn’t all about envy, though. I was jealous of Johnny and wanted to be him, but I also liked him. He’s a very complex character, especially for a children’s book, and even at a young age I could tell that Forbes was an all-around excellent writer. Pride, envy, patriotism, class struggles, sacrifice, family skeletons, a smattering of race issues—it’s a lot to cram into a YA book. I don’t know why Forbes isn’t better known in our era, or more widely read. This book won the Newberry, and her Paul Revere and the World He Lived In snagged a Pulitzer, but many of her books are out of print and difficult to find.
Her writing chops are hard to deny, though. Here, a group of Whigs have ransacked a house belonging to a wealthy merchant, a man that Johnny believes he is related to. Johnny and Cilla have gone to gather up any remaining valuable before the mob returns:
His footsteps echoed through the cast, silent reaches of the house. One after another the heavy shutters slammed to and he bolted them. A protest of unused hinges and then a bang, and he went on to the next. The echo of his own footsteps.
“My grandfather built this house…”
“My mother knew it and loved it…”
“My father dead before ever I was born…”
Now, for as long as it stood, this would be a haunted house. He felt the ghosts waiting in darkness until he and Cilla were gone before they stepped forth to take possession.
After Lexington and Concord, Johnny takes a moment to reflect:
He could smell turned earth and gummy buds. And sweet wood somewhere burning. His nostrils trembled. Almost could they recapture the gunpowder of yesterday. So fair a day now drawing to its close. Green with spring, dreaming of the future yet wet with blood.
This was his land and these his people.
My childhood fondness makes me biased, but I honestly believe I would enjoy Johnny if I were to read it now for the first time. Plain and simple, this is a great book for all ages.
I used to read it every 4th of July. A couple years back I let that slide, but no longer. Might I suggest that you try the same. Go to your parade in the morning, cook out in the afternoon, light your fireworks at night, but in between, read this book to help you remember what it’s all about.
*If you believe that someone actually has written this line before, send proof to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your claim is proven, David Duhr will walk nude through the North End playing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on a fife.**
** If anyone owns a fife, please email email@example.com