Esther Forbes’ “Johnny Tremain,” a book about a boy growing up in Colonial Boston during the Revolutionary War, has long been a staple in young adult literature. Written in 1943, the Newberry Award-winning book also appeared as a Disney movie in 1957. While it has occupied a place on library and classroom shelves for decades, a fresh look at the title character’s sexuality could open new possibilities for the book and its readers.
“Could Johnny Tremain Be Gay? Reinterpretation as a Subversive Act,” a paper published in the Journal of Homosexuality by Scott Henderson, a professor of education at Furman University, challenges decades-old assumptions about Tremain’s sexual orientation.
“This is just one way to interpret the story,” Henderson says, but it’s especially important for some readers.
“For LGBTQ students or young adults, 99.99 percent of the real literature, the serious literature they read has heterosexual protagonists,” he says. “They never see anyone who acts or sounds like the person they are. This reinterpretation is a way to open up more serious, solid literature to LGBTQ students who would otherwise not see their identity portrayed in what they are reading.”
Henderson first got the notion to apply “queer theory” to “Johnny Tremain” when he casually picked up the novel at the airport on his way home from Boston two years ago. Prepared for some light reading, he instead had an epiphany at about page 50. “Oh my gosh, Johnny Tremain could be gay!” he said aloud, which drew sidelong glances from fellow passengers.
Henderson explains that queer theory, which emerged in the 90s, is a literary convention that says we should be open to considering a wide range of non-traditional interpretations in fiction, particularly with regard to gender and sexual orientation.
What tipped Henderson off to Tremain’s possible homosexuality was the 14-year-old boy’s admission that he didn’t like women or girls. Henderson argues that Tremain actually falls in love with an older adolescent boy. Dozens of other interchanges between Tremain and other female and male characters prompted Henderson to re-read the book then review the same-titled Disney movie to check for any inconsistencies between the two.
He found that the film veered widely from the book. Virtually all details suggesting Tremain could be gay were removed, and elements were added to make certain the main character came across as a “red-blooded, heterosexual male,” Henderson says.
“What struck me like a blow to the head was that the changes in the film could not have been accidental or imposed for the sake of time,” Henderson says. “In the movie, for example, Tremain kisses the girl that in the book he consistently rejects. I think the screenwriters realized when they read the book that this boy was not as macho as he needed to be for a Disney film.”
Henderson says the “normalization” of Tremain in the film is neither good nor bad and insists that Forbes never intended Tremain to be construed as anything other than a heterosexual male.
Henderson’s paper could open new avenues of discussion about the book and other popular literary characters. And, he says, it just might validate how some young readers already interpret Tremain’s sexuality.