The title character and hero of Johnny Tremain is a fourteen-year old boy living in colonial Boston. When we first meet Johnny, he is arrogant, ambitious, slightly cruel, and wholly self-centered. In part, these vicious character traits stem from his prodigious gifts: he is unusually bright and well educated for an apprentice, and he is widely considered the most talented young silversmith in Boston. His insecurity and cruelty may also stem from his lack of a loving family, as his parents died when he was very young. Johnny works as an apprentice in a silversmith’s house, learning the craft in the hope that one day he can open his own shop. As an apprentice in his master’s house, Johnny has a status only a little above a servant, but he acts as tyrant, ordering around not only the other two apprentices but even his master and his master’s four granddaughters.
Johnny’s disdainful treatment of others leads to resentment, and this resentment leads to a disfiguring accident that ruins Johnny’s future as a silversmith. With a crippled hand, Johnny cannot find skilled work, and he allows himself to feel self-pity and despair. Dangerously close to giving up all hope of an honest life, Johnny almost turns to crime. Yet, due to his new job with the Boston Observer, the Whig newspaper, and his friendship with Rab Silsbee, the Lornes, and the leaders of the revolution, Johnny takes a more honest path. Inspired by their idealism and self-sacrifice, Johnny finds himself transforming from a selfish boy into a patriotic man. On a conscious level, he models himself after his new best friend, Rab, trying to imitate the older boy’s quiet, unassuming confidence and mild temperament. Unconsciously, as Johnny devours books in the Lornes’ library and soaks in the rhetoric of such acquaintances as Samuel Adams and James Otis, he begins to care about something much larger than his own petty ambitions and comforts. Johnny suddenly becomes an ardent Whig and a soldier, not because he is part of the Lorne family but because he rationally believes in freedom and rights for the colonists. At the novel’s end, Johnny has finally overcome his psychological and emotional handicaps. Faced unexpectedly with the prospect of a restored hand, Johnny is less concerned about whether he will be able to resume his job as a silversmith than whether he will be able to fire a gun and serve his nascent country.
Rab is two years older than Johnny, and when they first meet, he is everything that Johnny is not. Rab’s quiet confidence and sense of self makes him a foil for Johnny, who is still uncertain of his role in the world. Rab is quiet where Johnny is talkative, unassuming where Johnny is proud, and patient where Johnny is impetuous. From their very first meeting, Johnny sees Rab as a model and the man that he wants to become. Nonjudgmental and open-minded, Rab is immediately able to see through Johnny’s brash exterior to his sincere and lonely inner self. Rab reaches out to him effectively, providing him with a new life. He does not pity Johnny for his crippled hand and lost job. Instead, he offers Johnny the opportunity to overcome his handicaps.
Although Rab is only sixteen years old, he seems to feel comfortable in the world of high politics. He is trusted by all of the most important Revolutionary War leaders, who rely on him to print the Whig paper called the Boston Observer. Rab appears introverted and unflappable, but he harbors strong passions just below the surface. A devoted patriot and ideologue, Rab is a born fighter. He is fearless and thrives during times of strife because he is passionate and believes deeply in human rights. As soon as militias begin to form to fight against the British government, Rab joins the Minute Men. Forbes suggests that just as Rab makes an ardent fighter, he could also make an ardent lover. One of the only two times that Johnny sees Rab animated is during a party at which Rab dances with every girl present, and Rab’s secret courtship of Cilla hints at deep, passionate feelings. Rab is never given the chance to explore his second passion, though, as he is killed fulfilling his first. He is fatally shot at Lexington, during the opening battle of the Revolutionary War.
Cilla is the granddaughter of Johnny’s master, the silversmith Ephraim Lapham. At the book’s start, fourteen-year-old Cilla is promised to Johnny in marriage because of an economic arrangement to keep the silver shop in the Lapham family. Following Johnny’s disfigurement, however, this arrangement is cancelled. Like Rab, Cilla seems to be Johnny’s opposite in many ways. Though she is very bright, she is too self-effacing to demand to be taught how to read and write. Instead, she devotes her energy to her sickly, but beautiful, younger sister, Isannah, using any extra money she can find to buy the spoiled child ribbons and other treats. Sensitive and thoughtful, Cilla secretly sneaks food into the impoverished Johnny’s pockets in the interim period between his accident and his new home with Rab. When wealthy Lavinia Lyte becomes enchanted with Isannah, Cilla follows her sister to the Lyte home because she wants to accompany Isannah. Cilla works at the Lyte home as a lower-class servant, while Lavinia parades Isannah around Boston high society. As Lavinia cleverly tears Isannah away from Cilla, Cilla suffers silently and stoically.
On the other hand, Cilla has a caustic wit, teasing Johnny mercilessly and trading jabs with Rab. Cilla is self-reliant, a hard worker, and a kind person. Over the course of the book, Cilla develops from a skinny child into a beautiful young woman, and she begins to attract attention from men for the first time. Rab takes an interest in her, as does a young British soldier named Pumpkin, but it is Johnny that she has cared for all along. Like many colonists, she becomes an ardent Whig, and she refuses to leave for London with the rest of the Lyte household, including Isannah, on the eve of the Revolution. At the book’s end, Cilla loses her sister but gains the boy she has always loved.