Johnny Tremain | Study Guide

Esther Forbes

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Johnny Tremain | Chapter 1 : Up and About | Summary



It's 1773, and Johnny Tremain is a 14-year-old orphan apprenticed in a silversmith shop in Boston. The shop is owned by Mr. Lapham, an elderly silversmith prone to quoting the Bible. Lapham's widowed daughter-in-law, Mrs. Lapham, organizes the daily chores for the Lapham household, which includes her four daughters and three apprentices, but Johnny runs the shop. He is confident to the point of arrogance and barks orders at the other two apprentices. One of them, Dove, is older than Johnny and resents Johnny's dominance. The other one, Dusty, admires Johnny but sides with Dove: "He and Dove were bound together by their common servitude to Johnny's autocratic rule."

Although Mr. Lapham has allowed Johnny to take control in his silversmith shop, the pious old man tries to tamp down Johnny's arrogance by having him read Scripture after dinner. This has little or no effect on Johnny, who is too egotistical to learn of humility. Johnny is fond of the two younger Lapham daughters, Cilla and Isannah, but he teases them frequently and sometimes quite harshly. Cilla Lapham is Johnny's age, and Isannah is eight years old. If Johnny takes over the silversmith shop from Mr. Lapham, the family expects that he and Cilla will marry.

One night while Johnny and Cilla are caring for Isannah, Johnny tells Cilla his middle name, Lyte, and reveals that he may be related to Jonathan Lyte, a merchant in town who is "so rich gold and silver are like dust to him." He shows Cilla a silver cup his mother gave him before she died; it bears the Lyte family crest. His mother told him that if ever things take a turn for the worst, he is to show it to the merchant. "He will know the kinship, she said, and in pity he may help you."


Esther Forbes immediately plunges readers into the tensions of a colonial family and its business. Her character development is typical of children's fiction in the mid-20th century: to force her protagonist to grow, she makes him flawed. Johnny spent his early years without a father, and he lost his mother shortly after he was apprenticed to Mr. Lapham. Although Mr. Lapham puts his trust in him, the boy is both immature and arrogant, likely because he has had insufficient guidance in life.

Johnny's immaturity poses a threat to his livelihood and his future. The Lapham family assumes he will someday take ownership of the shop and marry Cilla. But that eventual marriage seems distant to both Johnny and Cilla, and they relate primarily through teasing, which occasionally becomes harsh.

Confident that he will become a great silversmith, Johnny also sees no need for friends. He will have none to support him should events take a turn for the worse, as they are about to do.

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