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Johnny Tremain: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Shelley Vessels

Shelley has taught at the middle school level for 10 years and has a master's degree in teaching English.

Johnny Tremain is a Revolutionary War historical fiction novel that follows a poor apprentice through his journey from childhood to adulthood and shows his involvement in the rebel movement. Read the following lesson for a quick summary and the annotated list of characters.

Summary of Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes

Set around the time of the Revolutionary War in Boston, Johnny Tremain is a coming-of-age story about a talented young silversmith apprentice (one who molds silver) who struggles to find his way. Johnny Tremain is overconfident, bossy, and bullies his fellow apprentices. While making a sugar bowl for the important John Hancock, Dove, a fellow apprentice, plays a prank on Johnny, resulting in Johnny permanently disfiguring his hand.

Without money or family, Johnny wanders around Boston for some time afterward contemplating where life will take him now that his silversmith career is ruined.

Years earlier, Johnny's dying mother told him about a wealthy relative, Merchant Lyte, but instructed her son not to contact him, unless the situation was dire. Johnny's situation does become dire, and through much drama, Merchant Lyte denies their kinship and is unkind to Johnny.

Colonial Boston
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By chance, Johnny develops a friendship with Rab, a printing apprentice and Whig (a member of a political group that fights for the Revolution), and learns through him how to be humble. Influenced by Rab, Johnny becomes involved with rebel Whigs and starts assisting them in the Revolution. At the end of the novel, Johnny begins a relationship with his childhood crush, Cilla, and looks to the future with her in the new country he helped to create. Without known family, wealth, or power, Johnny is able to establish himself as one of the key players of the American Revolution.

Major Characters

  • Jonathan Tremain (the protagonist, or main character): when the story starts, he's a fourteen-year-old apprentice under Mr. Lapham. Johnny reinvents himself later on in the novel to become a messenger and important part of the rebel movement.
  • Rab Silsbee: a printer's apprentice who shares in Johnny's involvement with the Whigs and becomes Johnny's closest friend.
  • Priscilla Lapham (referred to as 'Cilla'): Johnny's love interest, a young lady who selflessly cares for her younger sister, Isannah.
  • Isannah Lapham: a beautiful, yet sickly young girl who is cared for by her older sister, Cilla. Isannah is later taken in by Lavinia Lyte.

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