Reading New England: Two freedom fighters

Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain (1942)
M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (2006, 2008)

JohnnyTremainA few weeks ago, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where there is a room full of portraits of prominent Boston revolutionaries. Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Joseph Warren, and others — captured on canvas, they look down at us with a cool yet challenging gaze. What would they think of our political antics today? What do we understand as the legacy they left us?

I had just met many of these legendary figures in the pages of Esther Forbes’s Newbery-award-winning novel, Johnny Tremain. Somehow I had avoided this well-known classic throughout my school days, but now I was swept up into the story of apprentice silversmith Johnny, the accident that changes his life, and his encounters with the Sons of Liberty and the events leading up to the first shots fired in the War of Independence. It deserves the acclaim it has received, for it’s a vividly told, strongly characterized tale that brings a place and time to vibrant life.

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Paul Revere’s pensive portrait by John Singleton Copley (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photo by me)

Even though it was published as a children’s book, and would probably now be labeled as “YA,” I think I enjoyed it far more now than I would have as a child, when the central character of Johnny would have had limited appeal for me, and I would have been more confused than inspired by much of the historical detail. But other children, with different interests than mine, may have a different response; this is truly a book that defies age limitations and definitions. Read it young, or read it old, but do read it. It’s a wonderful exploration of themes of friendship, loyalty, courage, forgiveness, love, and self-transformation.

Yet there is something missing in Forbes’s account. Though black servants and “handmaidens” appear briefly in the narrative, and once or twice there is a reference to “slaves,” there is no serious acknowledgement of the fact that the vaunted fight for liberty was undertaken with a full acceptance and even dependence on black slavery, which (as my recent reading of New England Bound made clear) was woven deeply into the economy and social structure of all the colonies, north and south.

Forbes puts the most stirring speech of the book in the mouth of a man some of the other freedom fighters consider a madman, and this may be her oblique nod to the irony that underlies the whole event. As James Otis asserts that they are fighting “so that a man can stand up” — implying any human being, of any race, with dignity and integrity — most of the other revolutionaries turn away without comment. His words move Johnny, though, as they were meant to move the readers of Forbes’s time who were engaged in another war against an even more terrible tyranny, and they resound into our own time as an ideal to strive toward. But do they really represent what the Boston leaders thought? How could they engage in a struggle for liberty while actively subjugating and oppressing other human beings?

Octavian1This irony is brought to the fore and engaged with in a complex way in a two-part novel by M.T. Anderson, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Octavian is born into slavery in a Boston academy where scholars raise him in a bizarre experimental environment. The goal is to see whether Africans can attain the heights of European culture — or else, when the academy’s patronage changes hands, to prove that they cannot.

Regardless of the goal, the fact remains that Octavian, his mother, and their fellow slaves are treated as things rather than as people, objects that can be exchanged and priced like any other item at a market stall. When Octavian realizes this, he must break away and begin his own fight for liberty. His journey takes him into the camps of both armies, where he finds that neither has any interest in his personal liberation, but only in using him for political and military expediency. It’s up to him to seek his own precarious path toward freedom.

Anderson writes in a remarkably fluent eighteenth-century style that intersperses Octavian’s first-person account with letters, diaries, and proclamations in various voices and modes. It’s a virtuoso performance that brilliantly evokes the liveliness and erudition of the literature of the period, and I enjoyed it very much, especially in the first volume, before it becomes too much like a parlor trick.

A somewhat inaccurate contemporary painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill
A somewhat inaccurate contemporary painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill (Boston Museum of Fine Arts, photo by me)

I did wonder, though, how the intended audience of this avowedly YA novel would receive it. As a teenager I would probably have been as mystified as I was by Jane Austen and Samuel Johnson, and not persisted very far. The scenes of combat, murder, torture, rape, and other acts of violence would also have been hard for me to take, had I been able to understand what was going on. But again, maybe that’s just me — perhaps teen readers of today, with stronger stomachs than mine, will be undaunted by the mountains of arcane vocabulary words, and be pulled along by the gripping plot and the truly revolutionary ideas it embodies. In any case, adult readers should not be put off by the YA label; this is another book that has no upper age limit.

Today, as many Americans are clamoring to subject themselves to a tyrant far more devious and unprincipled than poor old George III ever was, and as our “free country” continues to reveal its dark tendency towards oppression and domination, both of these books have much to teach us. Each of us has a chance, now, to truly “stand up.” We will do so not through unthinking slogans and rhetoric, nor by blaming and demonization of others, but by means of the inner fight for freedom that conquers self-interest and embraces humility, compassion, and reverence.

Will a day come when we no longer callously allow our life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness to depend upon the suffering of others? May the struggles of Johnny and Octavian and their comrades inspire us in this most decisive battle. More than ever, our future depends on it.



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12 thoughts on “Reading New England: Two freedom fighters

  1. Great commentary on these books. I have not read either.

    Octavian Nothing sounds really good. Slavery, and its horrors and the hypocrisy they represented were a major part of Colonial society.

    I agree that there are book, some often read by younger folks, that I appreciate more that I am older.

    Having read a lot of war related accounts and other bad historical events I can say that I read some very explicit stuff when I was young. Ironically I find that reading about such things bothers me a lot more now.


    1. Given your interest in the Revolution, I think you would enjoy both. That’s an interesting point about your ability to read explicit things when you were younger – I do sometimes feel the same way, perhaps because some references just went over my head or I didn’t quite understand the implications. The violence is more real to me now.


  2. I read Johnny Tremain as a child and adored it – I think I was about eleven or so. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it as an adult. It’s been one I’ve often thought of re-visiting but been rather afraid to in case re-reading destroys my memories of it, but you’ve reasssured me that it stands up well to adulthood! I may have to fit it in sometime… thanks for the reminder. 🙂


  3. I was forced to read Johnny Tremain in third grade or so and found it awfully, painfully dull. I loved earlier classics, but those mid-century, educational children’s books did not do it for me. Octavian Nothing was one of the first books I read upon joining Goodreads in 2008, and I loved it. I agree that it seems like it would be a bit dense for an actual teenaged reader, but I think a kid who was a confident reader would be fascinated enough to take it on.


    1. I wonder how you would feel about Johnny Tremain now. I also suspect I would have been bored by it in third grade, but I’m more interested in the period details now and also the learning path of the main character. As a child I was more into high-action fantasy books.


    1. To be honest, I don’t quite see why Octavian Nothing was not published as an adult book (with crossover appeal for older teens). That’s what I would consider its proper sphere, if it had to be pinned down.


    1. This really seems to be one of those love/hate books, and I’m not sure what makes the difference – other than personality and temperament. There’s a large camp on both sides.


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