Johnny Tremain | Study Guide

Esther Forbes

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Johnny Tremain | Chapter 3 : An Earth of Brass | Summary



Johnny still lives with the Laphams, but now he's fairly useless in the silversmith shop, so must look for other work. He's never been idle before, and he doesn't like it. Mr. Lapham has told him to watch different artisans working along the Boston wharf and see if any of them are doing work he might take on, even with his bad hand. But Johnny "did not really want to follow any trade but his own."

Johnny asks a clockmaker for work, but he is rejected because of his hand. Other craftsmen reject him in turn. He stops going home to the Laphams for their hearty midday dinner because "Mrs. Lapham, Madge, and Dorcas were always pointing out how much he ate and how little he did." Fortunately, Cilla puts a little food in his jacket pocket, so he has something to eat while he walks around Boston, friendless and downhearted.

On a whim Johnny goes into the office of the Boston Observer newspaper. There he meets Rab Silsbee, an older boy who is running the press. Rab immediately strikes Johnny with his friendly and engaging manner. "He had none of the bustling smartness"—meaning impatience—"of the usual Boston apprentice"; instead he is patient and observant. When Rab talks to Johnny, he immediately realizes Johnny is hungry and offers him lunch. Johnny finds himself opening up to Rab, explaining how he got injured and admitting "how cross and irritable he had become. How rude to people who ... were sorry for him." Rab is "the first person to whom Johnny Tremain had confided his own story." Talking to Rab, who exudes "ease and confidence," makes Johnny feel more optimistic about his future. Rab mentions that the newspaper has an opening for a delivery person, but Johnny thinks he can find better work.

Back at home, Mrs. Lapham has started seeking a replacement for both Johnny and her father-in-law in the silversmith shop. Mr. Percival Tweedie, a bachelor of about age 40, makes his appearance and negotiates for the position with Mrs. Lapham. He seems to "fancy" first Dorcas Lapham and then her sister Madge. Johnny takes an immediate dislike to him and his "queer, squeaky voice. ... Such impotence, such timidity in a grown man irritated the boy." When Johnny voices his doubts about Mr. Tweedie's skills and refers to him as a "squeak-pig," Mrs. Lapham throws Johnny out.

Johnny starts compensating for his misfortunes by tilting his hat at a rakish angle and thrusting his right hand (the injured one) in his pocket, giving him an arrogant air: "the arrogance had always been there, but formerly it had come out in pride in his work." To the world at large, he no longer looks like "a smart, industrious Boston apprentice." He has an idea to ask John Hancock for work. Hancock gives Johnny a chance at a clerical position, but the boy's ruined hand makes it impossible for him to write cleanly. Hancock does give Johnny a purse of money: "that much copper would provide him with food for days." He buys not only food, but new shoes for himself and gifts for Cilla and Isannah. But when he tries to pick up Isannah, she screams, "Don't touch me with that dreadful hand!" Johnny is stricken. He thinks only Isannah is young enough to say what everyone else has been thinking.

That night, Johnny goes to his mother's unmarked grave and flings himself down beside it: "Then he began to cry. He had not been able to cry before." Johnny now decides his only hope is to do as his mother suggested—he will take the silver cup she gave him, engraved with the Lyte name, to the wealthy Mr. Lyte and pray that Lyte will acknowledge their family relationship.


Johnny's desperate need for companionship and a family is evident in this chapter, in which he wanders Boston and tries to find a new job. No one will hire a boy with only one good hand. However, he has not yet begun to trace a journey of growth, though such a journey is indicated by the room where the elderly woman treats his hand: the "birth and death room." As Johnny will later note, part of him does die in that room, and the seeds of a rebirth are planted.

Meanwhile, though, Johnny's immaturity shows when he returns to the Lapham household and acts as though he is still the head apprentice. He is rude to Mr. Tweedie, who may be the family's salvation, so Mrs. Lapham throws him out, leaving him without even a makeshift family.

The only people who show Johnny kindness in the outside world are John Hancock and Rab Silsbee. Hancock lets Johnny try for a job, and when it's clear Johnny is unsuited to it because of his bad hand, he sympathizes with the boy's plight and gives him a bag of money. Johnny will later repay this gift with his loyalty to Hancock and the other patriots who rebel against the British.

Rab, for his part, asks nothing of Johnny but offers him food, a sympathetic ear, and even a possible job. As readers will soon learn, Rab is a member of the Sons of Liberty, a tightly organized "mob" of Whigs who stealthily intimidate and undermine British authority. Readers looking back on the chapter will realize that one reason Rab lets Johnny do all the talking is that he's sizing Johnny up as a recruit. But Rab is also a caring person who will prove to be a great friend to Johnny.

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