Esther Forbes was born on June 28, 1891, in rural Massachusetts to a family steeped in American history. Her mother, Harriet Forbes, was an antiquarian specializing in the New England area, and the Forbes home was filled with relics of the region’s past. The Forbes family also eagerly traded folklore, particularly a story about an ancestor who was accused of witchcraft. From a very young age, Forbes began to read widely, paying particular attention to books on history and stories set within a historical context.
After graduating from high school at the Bradford Academy, Forbes spent two years studying history at the University of Wisconsin. When the United States entered World War I, she left college to join the war effort. Just like Johnny Tremain, war transformed her life and her ambitions. Forbes spent several years working on a Virginia farm to produce food for the embattled nation, which she calls the proudest years of her life. After the war ended, she moved back to Massachusetts and worked as an editor at the Boston-based publishing company Houghton Mifflin. During this period she also devoted a lot of time to her own writing. She published her first novel, O Genteel Lady!, in 1926, and published four more historical novels over the course of the next decade. In 1942 she published her first nonfiction work, a biography of Paul Revere entitled Paul Revere and the World He Lived In, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize.
While researching Paul Revere’s life, Forbes became increasingly interested in the colonial period, particularly in the Bostonians of the Revolutionary era. She decided to write a children’s book telling the story of a young Boston apprentice who witnesses America’s birth firsthand. Forbes began writing Johnny Tremain on December 8, 1941, the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II. As the war waged on, Forbes was impressed with the way that young men and women were suddenly forced to become adults and take on weighty responsibilities. She admired their sense of self-sacrifice and their commitment to the cause of patriotism. Her observations of American youth during World War II helped her to understand the youth of the Revolutionary era and the ways in which they, too, were forced to grow up rapidly. These observations helped Forbes to develop the characters of Johnny and Rab. Johnny Tremain was published to widespread acclaim in 1943, during the height of American engagement in World War II. In 1944 Johnny Tremain received the Newbery Medal, awarded annually to the best book of children’s literature. After Johnny Tremain, Forbes returned to publishing novels for adults. Forbes’s best-selling book The Running of the Tide won the MGM novel award and inspired a motion picture. Her last work, Rainbow on the Road, spawned the 1969 musical Come Summer. Forbes died on August 12, 1967, after a long and fruitful career as a novelist, historian, and biographer.
Though Johnny Tremain is one of only two books Forbes wrote for children, it is the work for which she is best known today. The novel has become standard reading for students because of its insightful and vivid portrayal of the events leading up to the Revolutionary War. During the time period that the book covers, colonial frustrations are reaching a fever pitch and threatening to erupt into war. In the wake of the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War, England found itself heavily in debt and looked to the colonists to alleviate some of the financial pressure. Between 1764 and 1767, the British government enacted a series of new taxes targetting to the colonies, such as the Sugar Tax, the Townshend Acts, and the notorious Stamp Tax. Given that the war had been fought partly to protect the American colonists, the decision to raise revenue from within the colonies made some sense, but it outraged many Americans, who felt that they were being governed unfairly. Since Americans had no representative in Parliament, they argued that they had no say in how they were taxed or how their tax money was spent. The Americans called England’s unfair financial practice “taxation without representation.”
The Americans responded to England’s actions by ignoring the laws, formally protesting the British violation of American rights, and finally by resorting to boycotts and outright violence. England repealed many of the taxes in response to American protest, and the years 1770 to 1773 saw a lull in the difficulties between the mother country and her colonies, although the rebel leaders continued to criticize England. In 1773, the year in which Johnny Tremain begins, this lull in civil unrest was broken. The disruptive incident was the infamous Boston Tea Party, during which young patriots, dressed as Native Americans, stormed a British ship and tossed its cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. This act of disobedience, and the British response, set off a series of events that led to the Revolutionary War. Johnny Tremain brings to life this series of events, and the lives of the men and women involved in them.