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» Friday, July 03, 2009"We Are the Sons...the Sons of Liberty"
Our second- and fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. Grady, used to train student teachers. I have long forgotten any of the second-grade teachers, but the first of our fifth-grade teachers will stay in my memory forever. She was young and fashionable, with the "pixie" haircut of the late 60s, and wore miniskirts (well, as short as the school board might allow), and her name was Miss Greenberg.
One day she told us she wanted to try something different with us. Every day after lunch, she was going to read to us. She had already chosen the book.
We were ten and eleven years old, and we were rather indignant. Reading to us? But only babies were read to. Our moms and dads had read to us before we knew our alphabet. Did she think we were little kids?
On the other hand, it was some time when we didn't really have to think. No quizzes to do. No sums to work. No dates to memorize.
So after lunch Miss Greenberg opened up a hardback book and began to read thus:
"Chapter One: Up And AboutWhat she had begun, of course, was Esther Forbes' 1943 novel Johnny Tremain.
A class of normally active boys and girls sat to listen, and some magic was worked on them. As Boston awoke, so did we, and soon we too were up in the attic with Johnny and his fellow apprentices, heeding the call to rise from below. After a few days we started to beg Miss Greenberg to read more when she stopped each day. There were two copies of Johnny Tremain in the school library and after a few weeks both were not available, taken out by one student after the other. I begged my mother to get me a copy for Christmas. At that time the book was not in print, and Mom had to scramble to find me one, which turned out to be a teacher's edition with questions in the back.
When Miss Greenberg finished Johnny Tremain, she started another book about the American Revolution, Hay-foot, Straw-foot, but we never did quite like it as well as the first.
Even if I had never read the book again, the wonderful characters would still be vivid to me: arrogant but intelligent Johnny, swinish fellow apprentice Dove, demure Cilla (my favorite character), spoiled little Isannah, saintly Mr. Lapham, Mrs. Lapham and her other daughters, Madge and Dorcas, the exciting Rab, Paul Revere, the snooty Mr. Lyte and his fascinating daughter Lavinia, handsome Lieutenant Stranger, the men of the Sons of Liberty, the Lyte cook Mrs. Bessie, Uncle Lorne the publisher of The Boston Observer, and Johnny's beautiful horse Goblin, part Narragansett Pacer, all moving about among the historical events of the past, not flat names in a history book, but living, breathing real people. I think Johnny was one of the things that awakened my love of history.
I didn't see the Disney film until much later and I was so exciteduntil I did. It's not a bad film, although very 1950s in its black-and-white outlook at history. It tries very hard to live up to what the book does: make historical characters and events live, but it's stagy enough that it really never succeeds. It even makes major historical errors: in one scene they are hanging lanterns on the Liberty Tree after the Boston Tea Party takes place, and the tree is covered with leaves. But the Tea Party took place in December. I guess you can say it's just being symbolic, but to anyone who knows a little bit of history, it's kinda silly.
Whole swathes of characters had to be left out in the 80-minute timeslot: Isannah, Dove, Madge and Dorcas, Stranger, Sgt. Gale, Lavinia...where some of them didn't matter, like Madge and Dorcas, both Dove and Lavinia Lyte were integral parts of the story. (Selznick's adaptation of Gone With the Wind left many characters out of Margaret Mitchell's book, too, but the film managed to hit all the right notes.) Although the book hints at a little puppy love between Johnny and Cilla, they are fourteen and thirteen when the book starts, and not all romance-y like Johnny and Cilla in the movie. And the movie changes the ending of the story, which is probably fine for those weepy ones with crushes on one of the characters who meets a sad ending at Lexington, but it ruins the point of the book, which was that people were going to die for liberty, people who were beloved fathers, sons, brothers, friends...but that liberty was worth fighting for, despite the cost, that, as James Otis says, "A man can stand up."
As a basic introduction to the Revolutionary War, the movie is okay...but the book offers so many gifts that after it the movie is like expecting a necklace of precious gems and getting a Cracker Jack ring instead. (Pity, too, because the "Liberty Tree song" is really catchy...)