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Johnny Tremain Summary and Analysis

by Esther Forbes

Chapter 5

Summary

Everyone has lunch at the Afric Queen. Rab explains how he got Cilla to court in time to testify. He had taken an official letter from the governor to the printer’s shop, which ordered the printer to stop printing rebel pamphlets. Rab showed Mrs. Lapham the letter and told her it was an order from the governor that Cilla must testify. Because Mrs. Lapham couldn’t read, she allowed Cilla to go to court. He had also coached Isannah in case the trick with the letter didn’t work.

Johnny doesn’t want to “sponge on” (94) the Laphams or Rab, so he is homeless. He tries to sell the silver cup for cash, but the local silversmiths will only offer him four pounds for it because the design is so old-fashioned. He knows it is worth more to Mr. Lyte because it is part of a set, so he goes back to the Lyte house and offers to sell it. However, Mr. Lyte takes it forcibly and threatens to report Johnny for theft (again) if he complains. He also threatens to send Johnny to Guadalupe as a servant boy. Johnny escapes and returns to the print shop, where Uncle Lorne, the owner, offers him a job as a delivery boy. Johnny agrees, and Rab shows him how to ride the company horse, Goblin.

Goblin is a good horse, but he spooks easily because his previous owners whipped him. After one lesson from Rab, Johnny continues to take Goblin to practice riding in Boston Common. Over time, he becomes very good at riding the notoriously difficult horse, earning praise from Uncle Lorne. Johnny begins to deliver The Boston Observer to the neighboring towns, and enjoys discussing politics with the people he meets. As he becomes better informed about political issues, he decides that he is a Whig. Johnny sleeps in the attic of the print shop with Rab. Rab sometimes uses the attic for meetings of The Boston Observers, a secret Whig group.

Johnny is very happy at the print shop. He makes extra money by delivering mail and taking care of Goblin. Uncle Lorne and his wife give Johnny plenty of free time, which he spends reading. His only chore—outside of his delivery duties––is to babysit Aunt Lorne’s baby son, whom Johnny nicknames Rabbit. Johnny adores the baby and likes to talk to it when he doesn’t think anyone can hear him. Aunt Lorne sometimes catches him doing this, and thinks to herself that Johnny is lonely.

One day after work, Johnny sees Cilla and Isannah in the street. Now that Johnny is gone, Mr. Tweedie makes Cilla fetch water for the silversmith. Johnny is upset to see the pretty, delicate girl being forced to do hard labor. He carries the water for her and introduces Cilla to Goblin. He asks Cilla to meet him on Thursdays and Sundays––or whenever she is sent for water––so that he can carry it for her. She is reluctant at first, but she agrees when Johnny admits that he really just wants an excuse to talk to her and Isannah.

As time goes on, Johnny becomes more mature. One day Rab gently asks him why he goes around insulting people. Johnny thinks this over and decides to count to ten before saying anything the next time he gets angry. He uses this strategy one day when Sam Adams’s slave girl accidentally throws dishwater on him. Because he graciously accepts her apology instead of yelling at her, Sukey invites him in for some pie, and Sam Adams hires Johnny to make express deliveries for the Boston Committee of Correspondence.

Every Friday, Johnny goes with Rab to visit Rab’s family outside of Boston. On one such visit, they go to a country barn dance. Rab and Johnny both have fun dancing with the girls. Johnny notices that the girls don’t seem disgusted by his hand. When he mentions this to Rab, Rab tells him that no one would be frightened Johnny’s deformed hand if Johnny didn’t make such a big deal out of it himself.

One day, the butcher and his sons play a cruel trick on the Webb twins, two young apprentices at the print shop. They threaten to kill the twins’ cat. Rab and Johnny go and beat up the butcher and his sons. Johnny notices that Rab “was a born fighter—ferocious, utterly fearless, quick and powerful—but he didn’t fight often and he hadn’t much to say afterward” (112).

Analysis

In this chapter, Johnny grows as a person after being hired by Uncle Lorne. Although he seems to have lost his silver cup for good, losing it allows him to forget the idea of easy money and focus instead on getting ahead through hard work. In these chapters, Forbes shows that compassion and hard work are not only good in themselves; they also allow Johnny to get ahead. By being kind to Goblin, Johnny learns to ride the difficult horse––and impresses Uncle Lorne and the customers with his abilities. Johnny’s improving work ethic is shown in his willingness to take on side jobs to make extra money, like delivering express mail and taking care of Goblin.

This segment also showcases Johnny’s improving relationship with Cilla. Although the young girl does not appear for most of the chapter, when she does appear, Johnny tries to be helpful and admits how much she means to him. This stands in sharp contrast to his behavior in Chapter 4, when he insulted Cilla and said she wasn’t good enough for him to marry. Forbes implies that Johnny’s change in behavior is partly because he is lonely. Just before Johnny runs into Cilla and Isannah, Aunt Lorne thinks to herself that the boy needs more companionship than just Rab and the baby.

Although Johnny is the novel's hero, he seems to have a low opinion of "black folk in general." While this is very offensive by modern standards, it would have been entirely normal for a white boy in the eighteenth century. Even so, Forbes's portrayal of Johnny's racism is a bit problematic. For example, Sukey's dialect lines––"oh little master, I'se so sorry! Now you just step right into de kitchen and I'll dry up dem close" (109)––would probably not appear in a children's book written in 2012. However, there was more leeway for this kind of portrayal of African-Americans when Forbes wrote Johnny Tremain in 1943.

The fight with the butcher and his family foreshadows the role Rab will play in the coming American Revolution. Rab is a superior fighter, but he only does so rarely. Even so, Forbes questions whether certain problems must be resolved violently. In this case, the dispute with the butcher probably could have been solved without fighting. This also applies to Forbes’s portrayal of the Sons of Liberty. While they show integrity in standing up to tyranny, they also frustrate some people who think they are unnecessarily violent and intimidating. Rab’s activities as part of the ‘mob’ are a moral grey area.

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