I hope everyone’s weekend is going well. Early last month at the East Coast Toy Soldier Show in Hackensack I took the photo one sees here. It is an original Johnny Tremain playset manufactured by Louis Marx and Company in the late 1950s just after the movie’s release in 1957. That Disney production of course was based on the 1943 Esther Forbes young adult novel of the same name. Calling Johnny Tremain a young adult novel however does not do the book full justice; Forbes fully intended the monograph to be read by adults as well as kids, which is how the best children/young adult literature is supposed to be read. Indeed Johnny Tremain’s actual subtitle is: A Story for Old and Young. Forbes was awarded the John Newberry Medal in 1944 for Johnny Tremain. I’m sure it went well with the Pulitzer Prize for History she had won the previous year for her biography of Paul Revere.
My father, who as a very young man just out of high school worked for a brief time as a longshoreman on the Boston wharves around which the book is set, gave me a copy of Johnny Tremain when I was about ten. Recently, inspired by seeing the playset above, I ordered a new copy to replace my long-lost edition. Thankfully it also contains the poignant sketchings drawn by graphic artist Lynd Ward. I am about halfway through it right now. The book stands up remarkably well. The trick to reading historical fiction is to understand the context in which the particular title was written. One must never read historical fiction with the idea one is actually studying history. Historical fiction is less “history” than “memory,” not so much a study of the past but a take on how we remember and use that past. Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels for instance was released in 1974, toward the end of the Vietnam War. Esther Forbes began Johnny Tremain on December 8, 1941, the day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Prior to that she had toiled on the draft of a different novel about the Revolutionary War Era, one with a more neutral, even pacifist theme that rang hollow to Forbes after the surprise Japanese attack. Again, context is everything when it comes to historical fiction.
If one is looking for a good book to give the young (or old) reader in one’s life this holiday season, I have the perfect idea.