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