I was talking about Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes. As luck would have it, this Newbery winner is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. Seriously, this book just does not stop.
And how bizarre is it that I would think about doing a Johnny Tremain blog post and then find out it is its anniversary year? My avid followers may recall that I'm always having woo-woo-type experiences with books. And speaking of woo-woo-type experiences: am I the only person struck by the fact that the Tremain anniversary edition has a forward written by someone named Nathan Hale? Come on.
My 2009 JT blog post was inspired by some posts at another blog, Boston 1775, a site on the American Revolution in Massachusetts maintained by J. L. Bell. (This is one of the rare situations in which I've actually met someone I'm talking about. In fact, I've met John a couple of times.) I was thinking about bringing John's 2009 Johnny Tremain posts to my readers' attention again, anyway. Once I realized the book was having a big, big anniversary, too, I went to work.
John did three posts in what I called, at the time, a Tremainathon. They were based upon his reading of Son of Liberty: Johnny Tremain and the Art of Making American Patriots by Neil L. York, a history professor at Brigham Young University. I found the first and third posts particularly interesting.
The Path to Publication
What I Found Particularly Interesting About Post 1 In The Tremainathon: "I’ve long said that Johnny Tremain reflects the values of America during World War 2, and York confirms that was in fact Forbes’s vision. She called the book “my great war effort...” I don't think a lot of people realize that a lot of what they read when they read history reflects as much about the people who wrote it than it does about the historical events or figures they were writing about. That's what makes history more...mmm...fluid?...then we probably expect it to be. No, what happened in the past cannot change. What we know about it can change, if new information comes to light. And how we perceive it can change, depending on the attitudes of people writing about it.
This summer I finished reading Champlain's Dream by David Hackett Fischer. (Oh, my gosh! John mentions him in his third Tremain post!) Okay, I only skimmed the book, but I can tell you that Fischer includes a thirty-four page section listing writings about Champlain and describing how the authors from different periods perceived him. ("A rough-hewn man of the people." "Imperial.")
History, it appears, is never done.
Johnny Tremain's Deleted Scene
Check it out. It relates to both Post 1 and Post 3.
Three People Detained at the Castle
What I Found Particularly Interesting In Post 3 Of The Tremainathon: Forbes lucked out when she deleted the scene described in Post 2 from Johnny Tremain. Some historical information she used in that scene turned out to be inaccurate. Unfortunately, she had used it in her Pulitzer prize winning biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In. What was the problem?
"When that letter, now in the John Lamb Papers at the New-York Historical Society, was printed in Elbridge Goss’s 1891 biography of Revere, there was one small error. Instead of saying “three persons,” Goss’s transcription said “these persons.”
While writing her biography of Revere, Forbes interpreted “these persons” to refer to the men who had signed the letter..." And she concluded that all those people, instead of "three persons", were somewhere they weren't.
I think we can all agree that this is a lesson we should all learn in not relying on secondary sources. The thought of hunting down every single primary source for a biography exhausts me. I am overwhelmed as I sit here.
Also, this is the kind of story that confirms my feeling about writing straight history. No, thanks. I already don't sleep well at night.
Johnny And Esther Deserve A Moment
I don't believe I've ever read Johnny Tremain. I may have seen a bit of the movie, but only if it turned up on TV. So I can't say I'm a fan. I do, however, have great respect for Esther Forbes' accomplishment. Within a two-year period she won a Pulitzer Prize and a Newbery Medal. That is one hell of a one-two punch. And, yes, having a book stay in print 75 years is mind-boggling. A very tiny number of writers see anything like that happen. Probably not even 1 percent of writers do this.
I wish Esther and Johnny were getting more attention this year. Maybe more will happen before December. In the meantime, scroll down this column from Shelf Awareness for an interview with Nathan Hale on his involvement with the Johnny Tremain anniversary edition.