Required Reading as I Remember It, Episode 1: Johnny Tremain

Today I was spending some time thinking about the dystopian society in which retired cereal mascots must live under the tyrannical rule of Colonel Sanders, Dave Thomas, or Fred the Donut Baker depending on the sugar content of the cereal that had forsaken them, as usual. You’re probably thinking it would be pretty cool if I laid all the details of what happened in the sad afterlives of the Cookie Crook or Wendell the Baker, but that’s another article. Actually, it might not even be an article so much as it is a mural I need to have commissioned. It’s a very serious undertaking for me considering the only biopic of Wendell the Baker, titled The Wendell Baker story, is grossly inaccurate and doesn’t mention Cinnamon Toast Crunch even once. Perhaps there was some kind of licensing issue with General Mills?

This gentle baker got away with murdering his team after a particularly soggy batch of CTC.

This gentle baker got away with murdering his team after a particularly soggy batch of CTC.

Anyway, that got me thinking about other dystopian societies, which in turn got me thinking about all the required reading I had to do throughout my education. (Required reading is wrought with images of worlds that are only slightly less depressing than being an adult.) All those hundreds of hours spent reading books when I could have been playing Nintendo. What was I supposed to have gotten out of that? A more informed world view? I don’t have that. Should it have made me a better person? It didn’t. Could I even remember what some of these stories were about? I don’t know, probably. I’m going to try to recount some for you.

johnny-tremain

Remember when you had to read this?

Our first selection is Johnny Tremain, written by Esther Forbes, first published in 1943. (I looked that up.) This is the story of a seemingly ordinary boy who came to the newly formed country of America on the Mayflower. Most of the action takes place in humble Plympton, Massachusetts. Johnny lived a normal life, apprenticed to a blacksmith. Each day he would wake up, slaughter a pig for breakfast, and milk all of his master’s cows. He would stop for a short visit with Jane, the girl who lived at the farm next door.

They took everything he had. Now, he was going to take something back.

They took everything he had. Now, he was going to take something back.

Johnny was in love with Jane, but they were not meant to be, as she was betrothed to one of the indigenous savage peoples’ clans as a peace offering. On the same day he learned this, a downtrodden Johnny arrived at the blacksmith’s shop to find that his master had been slain– by none other than the same tribe of natives into which Jane was going to marry! It was then that he laid out his master plan. He would have his revenge and make them pay. He set to work on creating a sword– one of incredible power that would be matched by no other.

Historians believe this is what Johnny's sword was to look like

Historians believe this is what Johnny’s sword was to look like

Several days of cool sword making passed, when none other than the governor, a young Thomas Jefferson, (who also was Jane’s father!) knocked on the door of the blacksmith’s shop. Thomas Jefferson put his hand on Johnny’s shoulder and said “Boy, I require your assistance immediately. There’s something I need you to see.” And so, Thomas Jefferson lead the hopeful Johnny to the town square. When they arrived, he couldn’t believe his eyes. In his determination to avenge his master and win back the heart of the woman he loved, Johnny had forgotten about the most important day of the week: Witch Trial Day.

Justice.

Justice.

However, this was no Witch Trial to enjoy like on any other common Sunday. The witch on trial was none other than Jane Jefferson, the love of his life! Here she stood, facing execution from her own father for the crime of witchcraft. What had tipped off the town that she might be a witch? Being betrothed to a native, of course. But why had they brought Johnny here to see this? Certainly it would only bring him heartache.

As it turned out, the townsfolk had taken a vote and it was divided at exactly fifty-fifty whether Jane should be burned as a witch or hanged as a traitor. It was up to Johnny to cast the deciding vote. With tears in his eyes he told the people in an impassioned speech that while he was in love with Jane, he knew in his heart that she would never betray the town. Therefore, she was a witch and must be burned. Once that gruesome work was done, Johnny returned home to make the final modifications to his ultimate weapon.

Johnny in an early film version

Johnny in an early film version

Johnny finished creating his sword and held it straight into the air, ready to chop off the head of the evil Chief Wampanoag, when suddenly it was struck by lightning. The sword, much like his dreams, was shattered. Burned to a crisp, Johnny laid there, waiting to die. But something unexpected happened. He didn’t die, but it turns out HE HAD NEVER LIVED! Johnny looked at his mangled hand, finding it to be made of metal.

Learning his true robot nature triggered a program in Johnny’s memory banks. He now knew his true purpose. He had been built by the redcoats to look like a human and travel back in time to live among the colonials, spying on them. If his nature were ever to be revealed, he was to carry out his mission: to kill Paul Revere before he could warn anyone who was coming.

Want to know how the story ends? Does Johnny get to kill Paul Revere and win the war for the noble redcoats, or does he get his ass handed to him by Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre? Well I’m not here to ruin it for you. Maybe you should try reading a book.

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