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Sunday, August 26, 2018

Another Love Letter to JOHNNY TREMAIN (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)

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I think this is the most recent one,
so I might get in trouble,
but is he drawing a sword here?

Like every writer, the books that have influenced me have been too many to count, but the book that has most influenced me as a writer is my favorite book, the book that is always there for me, the book that has something new to say every time I read it.

I know I shouldn't, but I always cringe a little when I tell people about my favorite book, because I know they're probably not going to get it because they probably haven't read it. If anything, they know it's a book that has suffered from a wide variety of terrible covers, despite the beautiful internal illustrations by the legendary Lynd Ward. Or they know the truly horrific and terribly unfaithful-to-the-book-in-the-most-egregious-of-ways 1957 Disney adaptation. Or they know it's about a boy who burned his hand. There was even a joke about this on Family Guy.

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Goblin, the horse, reminds me of my dog.


Yes, my favorite book is Johnny Tremain, the 1944 Newbery Medal winner by Esther Forbes, and if you haven't read it, you need to abandon everything you think you know about it and go read it right now because it is a freaking masterpiece. (Yes it won the Newbery, which is for children's literature, but like many of the early winners, it is a YA book. The main characters are teenagers. It was written for teenagers. YA just wasn't a category in 1944.)

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This is the copy I had as a kid, complete with floating house, floating Redcoat, and dudes randomly in a field. At least the ship makes sense. Oh, and also, JT can't hold a gun because of his hand situation and that's actually a plot point, so read the book why don't you, cover artists. His hand looks totally fine in this picture, and the fact that it is not is kind of the inciting incident. Sheesh.

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Johnny is either a zombie or a vampire in this one.
Does he not look like he's about to go drive a stake
through someone's heart?

Johnny Tremain is the story of the most gifted silversmith's apprentice in colonial Boston, who has to give up on that career after an accident with molten silver maims his right hand. His ensuing adventures with the revolutionary crowd provide a nuanced look at patriotism, family, friendship, and love (unlike that utterly horrifying Cold War Era Disney adaptation).

Esther Forbes called the book her "great war effort," and it was published at the height of World War II. But Forbes, already an accomplished historian, was not going to tell a one-sided story. The year before she won the Newbery, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her history of colonial Boston, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In.

In the research for that book, she uncovered a scrap of information that said the night Paul Revere started on his famous ride, a "horse boy" brought him the information he needed. As she reflected on her research she realized that the story of the apprentices of Boston had never been told. So in Johnny Tremain, she told it.


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This might be the worst thing I've ever seen.
Again, people, dude cannot hold a gun.
The thing with his hand is kind of a big deal.
Esther Forbes also hated this movie,
which is unfaithful to the book in plot points
and in spirit.


I majored in history and wrote two literary history theses in grad school. When I write historical fiction, it's very important to me to get the historical world right. (It's never what anyone wants it to be, because people do love their completely unfounded stereotypes, but that's a different story.) And often, I find stories in the scraps, between the lines.

I always say that there are so many stories that have never been told that there's no need to ever write the same book twice.

This book has always had something to say to me.

When I first read it as a third-grader, it was about the double-edged sword of giftedness, about how that label makes people feel about you, and about how it makes you feel about other people.

When I returned to it after a break of fifteen years or so, as a young adult, it was about the ways giftedness fails us.

When I was writing my first novel (and every time I've gotten stuck), I read it and it shows me how to write again.

On November 8, 2016 and on all the days after, it became a book about how your country can break your heart and how political divides trickle into personal ones, no matter how hard you try to stop that from happening.

And in my most recent rereading, it has reminded me that toxic relationships are toxic relationships, even when they're with family members, and you don't have to be a part of them.

One of readers' frequent criticisms of Johnny Tremain (spoilers) is that the book changes focus. You think it's going to be one thing, and then it's not. It looks like a bildungsroman, like a family drama, like a romance, but as soon as one of those narratives revs up, the novel drops it. It has an unfinished quality which was completely intentional on Forbes' part. Writing for a generation of readers going to war against tyranny and fascism, she wanted the young people who read the novel to realize that the story of the United States is unfinished and that all of us have our part to play.

(Ultimately, the problem with the covers and the Disney adaptation is that they ignore a nuanced story in favor of trying to sell the book on rah-rah 'Merica nonsense, which might inspire the MAGA folks who haven't read it to give it to their grandchildren, but completely ignores the realities of the book. Then again, perhaps that is the goal, in which case, well played, publishers.)

I can't think of a better book to read in 2018 than one that reminds us, in the words of Forbes' fictionalized James Otis, "the battle we win over the worst in England shall benefit the best in England," and that whether they are personal, familial, or national, the greatest struggles, with the highest stakes, are always with ourselves.

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