Monday, October 19, 2009

I'm Sorry, but I Just Don't See It That Way


I recently finished reading (and really enjoyed) My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier. The edition we have (from a book fair at my son's school, I think) had bonus features, including an interview with Christopher Collier. In that interview, Collier said, "Johnny Tremain provides a simple interpretation of the Revolution that puts it into easy categories of 'good' versus 'bad'....that book shows the war in a way it didn't really run."

Granted, I've been a huge fan of Johnny Tremain since Mrs. Howell read it to my sixth-grade class. So I immediately took offense to seeing it labeled as "the Revolutionary War for Dummies." Hot on the heels of finishing the Colliers' book, I started in on Johnny Tremain, seeing if maybe my fond nostalgia had clouded my memories and judgment.

My conclusion? No, it hasn't. I know Christopher Collier is the historian of that pair, and I am not the expert on the Revolutionary War that he is, but I think he is selling Forbes' book short on its portrayal of the war.

Let's take for an example his contention that the book puts the events of the war into "easy categories of 'good' and 'bad'." One area in which a reader might expect to find those easy categories would be in the development of characters. So for Collier's thesis to hold up, the British would be unequivocally "bad" and the Americans unequivocally "good." Yet I think of the portrayal of Lieutenant Stranger, the young British officer who at one point taught Johnny to jump with his horse. Certainly he is shown as eager for the fight; as one character described him, "He likes fightin' real good. He ain't no cardboard soldier...." Yet when Johnny is taking riding lessons with Lieutenant Stranger, he finds the officer treats him as an equal when they are in the saddle. The officer also displays a strong sense of honor. "Johnny knew he longed to own [Johnny's horse] himself. He could, any moment, by merely saying 'commandeer.' And Johnny knew he never would say it." The next paragraph sums up the complexity of Johnny's relationship with Lt. Stranger: "Johnny almost worshipped him for his skill and almost loved him...but still it was only where horses were concerned they were equals. Indoors he was rigidly a British officer and a 'gentleman' and Johnny an inferior. This shifting about puzzled Johnny. It did not seem to puzzle the British officer at all."

I can think of other British characters for which there was that same ambivalence. The deserter Pumpkin, tough little Sergeant Gale who married the daughter of Johnny's former master, the admired and hated Major Pitcairn. I think Forbes made it clear that though the characters disagreed on politics, they were all, at the heart of it, human beings with a combination of good and bad characteristics.

So maybe the fault lies in Forbes' portrayal of the American characters. But again, I would have to say no. I think about the way Sam Adams, one of the heroes of the revolutionaries, was portrayed. You would think a writer who is oversimplifying events would show the heroes to be universally good. But Forbes has Johnny observing that "the Tories were saying that Sam Adams has seduced John Hancock, even as the Devil had seduced Eve -- by a constant whispering in his ear." The reader is left with the impression that maybe the Tories aren't so wrong in their assessment. Adams is consistently shown as a warmonger: "He doesn't care much any more about our patching up our differences with England." Granted, Forbes does seem to indulge in some hero worship of Paul Revere (reading this book made me want to hunt up her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of him).

Maybe Collier's objection rests with the glossing over of violence. He and his brother take a "gritty" approach to describing what happened in the war, like when the boy sees the slave's head come bouncing off his shoulders during a skirmish. Yes, Forbes doesn't go into graphic detail, but she does include the violence that was part of the war, and not just in battles. At one point, Johnny hears a Tory man being beaten by the Sons of Liberty: Johnny heard blows and oaths from the street outside. His hands shook....They were doing something -- something awful, to the Tory." And strangely enough, it was one of the images of violence, from Pumpkin's execution, that was most deeply linked to my memories of this book: "Squared scarlet shoulders - and on each shoulder a musket. Each musket ended with a wicked round eye....Eight cruel eyes. It was like looking into the face of death."

I would have to conclude that Mr. Collier's comments are wrong. However, I have a theory as to why he would think Johnny Tremain is oversimplified. Yes, it doesn't place the reader right into the action of the war the same way My Brother Sam Is Dead does. I think that's because the Colliers wrote their book after television and Forbes wrote hers before television. Once we have seen footage of actual battle scenes and extreme closeups of actor's faces, I suppose anything other than "gritty" writing seems naive and oversimplified. Johnny Tremain depends on the reader to be involved and fill in the details; My Brother Sam Is Dead gives the reader the details up front. Johnny Tremain allows the reader to stay at arm's length if he/she wants to; My Brother Sam Is Dead forces the reader to be right in the action.