New Website

I’ve been working on a new website for quite awhile–about the last 4 months, in fact. It’s called The Real Settings of Children’s Fiction. I know, it’s a very creative name! (Maybe I’ll think of a more clever name later on.) This website is a geographical index of real place names in children’s literature. You’ll find place indexes there accompanied by annotated maps. The site is evidence of a grand encyclopedic vision to index many, many children’s books–hopefully I can actually realize it!

My focus for The Real Settings of Children’s Fiction is limited to stories set in Massachusetts for the moment. However, as my closest friends can tell you (viz., Jason), I’m curious to learn about pretty much everything (esp. geography) under the sun. So the settings of the books I index may eventually begin to wander down to New York City, up to western and northern New York, the White Mountains, Vermont, South America, the Himalayas, and possibly Mars.

I have indexed exactly one book so far: Johnny Tremain. It took me about 4 months of finding spare minutes here and there to accomplish this. But I’m hoping to find more time in the future (always hopeful!) to pick up the speed a little. As I write a blog entry here on another book, I will also be indexing it for my other website. The next book I’m hoping to write about and index will be Make Way for Ducklings.


Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain is a historical fiction book set in 18th century Boston. This book tells the story of Johnny Tremain over a two-year span from the summer of 1773 through the spring of 1775. At the beginning, Johnny is a 14 year old apprentice to a silversmith named Mr. Lapham.

Johnny and Rab are among those throwing the tea off the ships at Griffin's Wharf in the book.

Not long into the story, he severely burns his right hand on hot liquid silver in an accident. His hand is thereafter crippled, forcing Johnny to seek new employment. After several weeks of walking around Boston in a depressed state of mind, seeking an apprenticeship in a new trade and being turned down by most artisans because of his hand, Johnny discovers the printing office of the Boston Observer newspaper.

Bostonians are increasingly rebellious in these years leading up to the Revolutionary War. At the Boston Observer, a patriotic newspaper, Johnny finds a new home with the Lorne family and their cousin Rab, an apprentice printer. Rab is a year or two older than Johnny. Johnny admires and looks up to Rab. At the Observer, he gains a new job delivering newspapers in Boston, the surrounding countryside, and nearby towns. Many prominent members of the Sons of Liberty, such as John Hancock, Paul Revere, and Samuel Adams, secretly meet in the Observer office. Johnny becomes closely involved in the revolutionary effort.

Johnny delivers secret messages between members of the Sons of Liberty. He also spies on the British by offering to deliver messages for them. He participates in the Boston Tea Party in December 1773. He also carries important messages that assist Paul Revere in preparing for his famous midnight ride to Lexington in April 1775.

This is a reenactment of the battle on Lexington Green at dawn on April 19, 1775. Rab is wounded here and dies two days later.

Johnny Tremain is a story of a boy who grows into a man. He learns from Rab about controlling his anger. He learns to be humble and accept aspects of life that he can’t control–such as his crippled hand. Johnny discovers how to be a good friend through the examples of Rab and Cilla, his childhood friend.

As with all historical fiction, Johnny Tremain is a mixture of fact and fiction. Esther Forbes (1891-1967) was a historian who studied Massachusetts history. From the wealth of geographical and historical facts in this book, it is clear that Forbes knew revolutionary Boston very well! Johnny Tremain is set in magnificent detail on the Boston landscape of the 1770s. Johnny and Rab walk and run on many streets that no longer exist. Many of the great patriots of the Revolution, such as Samuel Adams and Doctor Joseph Warren, are characters in this book. Finally, real historical events are interwoven so closely with the plot of Johnny Tremain that, for the reader, it seems that some of these events could not have taken place without Johnny. For example, Johnny gives the secret signal that calls many of the “Indians” to Griffin’s Wharf for the Boston Tea Party–even though Johnny was never a real person! Forbes’ story is so convincing that the reader inevitably believes that, if not Johnny, then someone must have played his part in these major events of history.

This is Old North Church. It was called Christ Church in the book. Today there is a tall building (on the left in the picture) close to it. In the 1770s, the steeple of this church was clearly visible from long distances--even from across the river in Charlestown. That is why it was chosen to send the lantern signals on the night of April 18, 1775.

Most of the setting of Johnny Tremain is factual. Wharves, streets, parks, squares, and buildings in the book are all real–although some no longer exist. You can see many of them today, although some look very different and for others, it takes some research to figure out exactly where they were. For example, Boston’s waterfront has changed quite a lot since the 1770s. The city of Boston has been “creating” more land for at least 200 years! This may be surprising to you if you’ve never heard about this aspect of Boston’s history. Basically, soil and rock has been pushed out into the harbor, bays, and rivers to make more land. Some places that used to be next to the water are now far inland. In this blog, you’ll see a Google map of today’s Boston. I have used a wonderful website called Historic Map Works to see where many places in Johnny Tremain are located today. The website’s makers determined which places on the historical maps they know the precise location for–even today–then use that information to lay these old maps on top of current Google maps in perfect scale. Exciting, isn’t it!!

You can see some major locations in Johnny Tremain today; for others, you need to have some imagination. In the book, British soldiers pitch their tents on Boston Common. (167) Back then, the Common didn’t look as much like a park as it does today. The Common had “acres upon acres of meadow and cow pasture, hard ground cleared for the drilling of militias.” (116) Another place that has changed is Griffin’s Wharf, where the Boston Tea Party occurred. Today, if you walk in the area of Milk and Broad Streets in the North End, you will be standing where the Tea Party happened. It may however be difficult to imagine Johnny and Rab cracking open tea chests with their axes because the water and ships are so far away now.

In the book, British soldiers mockingly play Yankee Doodle on fife and drum as they leave Boston on April 19, 1775–these are reenforcement soldiers sent for by British Colonel Smith. (282) As badly wounded British soldiers return to Boston after the battles of Lexington and Concord, Boston townspeople observing them in the darkness whistle Yankee Doodle. (302) For more on the unusual history of this song, see “Yankee Doodle: Lyrical Legacy” from the Library of Congress.

If you ever stand at the corner of East Berkeley and Washington Streets, hop into a time machine in your mind back to 1770. If you looked west and northwest, you would see a muddy salt marsh that would have more or less water in it depending on the time of day; this area today is called the Back Bay neighborhood of Boston. If you looked east, you would see open water, a large part of Boston Harbor. This intersection was the location of Boston’s Town Gate on “The Neck.” Johnny wanders here in his despair after being shunned by Isannah because of his crippled hand. (79) Here too are the gallows that make Johnny shudder.

Many of the characters in Johnny’s world of revolutionary Boston can also be found in history books. The Boston Observers  are a fictional group. However, Forbes may have had in mind the historical Long Room Club, a group of patriot leaders who shared direction of the Sons of Liberty prior to the Revolution; the Long Room Club met in a room above the printing office of the Boston Gazette. (See Mr. Ronald Blackington’s writing on this from the Massachusetts Historical Society). Many members of the Long Room Club of history are also members of the Observers in the book: Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Paul Revere, Reverend Sam CooperJames Otis, John Adams, Josiah Quincy, Doctor Joseph Warren, Doctor Benjamin Church. They were all Sons of Liberty, a group that was very secretive because their activities were considered treasonous by the British government.

Samuel Adams was a member of the Boston Observers in the book.

Forbes tried as much as possible to describe these famous people in her story just as they were in history. For example, Johnny “did not know one thing against [Doctor Church], but he felt the man was crooked, and he knew that Paul Revere and Joseph Warren felt as he felt about Church.” (140) The real Doctor Church of history was convicted by the Continental Congress in November 1775 of “criminal correspondence” with the enemy, i.e. British troops; a letter of his to a British officer had been intercepted by patriots in July 1775. Some historians disagree with how Dr. Church is portrayed in Johnny Tremain; they think that Dr. Church was “strongly committed” to the Sons of Liberty and what they stood for until he was offered a bribe by General Gage to spy for the British–in other words, maybe the other patriot leaders were not suspicious of his allegiance in the way that they appear to be in the book.

James Otis is a member of the Boston Observers in the book. Mr. Otis delivers a speech to the Observers in which he argues that the Revolution should be fought so that "a man can stand up." (223-229)

Johnny Tremain also has its fair share of fictional characters–remember, this is historical fiction! To begin with Johnny himself is not part of history. The Laphams, the Lyte family, the Lorne and Silsbee families, Seargent Gale, and Pumpkin are some of the characters in Johnny Tremain who you will not find in history books. However, Forbes has written this book with such skill that the reader can easily believe that history could have happened this way. Many of these imaginary characters are probably similar to real people in Boston’s history. For example, there were many silversmith apprentices in Boston in the 1770s, one of whom could quite possibly have been involved in the Boston Tea Party–a list of people probably involved in the Boston Tea Party includes several boys as young as 14 years old.

The Boston of Johnny Tremain

Johnny Tremain’s plot is carefully placed on the real timeline of pre-Revolution Boston history. Forbes tells a story that places Johnny at the center of several major historical events in pre-Revolution Boston. Johnny is friendly with Boston patriot leaders such as Paul Revere, Dr. Joseph Warren, and Samuel Adams. As such, he is assigned significant roles in the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, and in preparing for the battles of Lexington and Concord. I’ve already mentioned above how Johnny stands outside of Old South Church on the afternoon of December 16, 1773 to transmit a secret signal to begin the Tea Party. (154-156) Johnny is sent by Dr. Warren to Paul Revere’s house to let him know that the British would be crossing the Charles River on the night of April 18, 1775, probably headed for Lexington and Concord. Johnny also has the important role of letting Mr. Robert Newton, sexton of Old North Church (Christ Church in the book), know that he needs to light two lanterns in the church tower–the agreed upon signal for Charlestown patriots that the British would be initially traveling by sea, not by land. (269-271) Finally, it is partly through Johnny’s gathering of military intelligence from Dove, British Colonel Smith’s stable boy, that Warren and Revere are able to warn Lexington and Concord’s Minute Men of the British plans. (263-268) How ever did these major historical events happen without Johnny there to move them along?! Fiction is mixed so intricately with fact in this story that it takes some research to figure out which is which.

Johnny’s Newspaper Delivery Route

In this post, I haven’t even really begun to sort out the facts from fiction in Johnny Tremain! This book is rich in historical details, from anecdotes and descriptions of important Revolution-era people, both patriot and Tory, to the geographic layout of Boston in the 1770s. Read this book for a wonderful picture of what Boston was like just before the Revolutionary War. Johnny Tremain will give you a good idea of how it would feel to be a teenager caught up in the feverish wave of American patriotism that eventually resulted in independence and a new nation.

*I have inserted page numbers in this post from Random House’s Yearling edition of Johnny Tremain, first published in 1987. The cover of this particular edition appears near the top of the post.

Two Songs from The King of Mulberry Street

Daisy Bell

After the Ball Is Over

A Place for Joey

"A Place for Joey" by Carol Flynn Harris

This post provides some background information on Chapter 1 of A Place for Joey.  It will have pictures, sounds, and maps to help you imagine what it would be like to witness the story as it happens in early 20th century Boston.

Here is a map of Boston’s North End. North Square, North Street, and Commercial Street are all marked.

Joey’s apartment is probably on North Street south of North Square. He and Domenic head walk toward North Square on their way to the molasses tanks. It wouldn’t make sense for them to walk toward North Square unless that were on their way to the tanks.

Here is a map that gives you an idea of where Boston’s North End is in relation to Watertown.

"No sidewalks, no people, no nothing." This is a picture of Watertown in the 1920s.

According to Joey, the part of Watertown that his family wants to move to is countryside with “no sidewalks, no people, no nothing.”

Domenic and Joey argue with the molasses workman and the two Irish kids near the molasses tanks at the foot of North Street.

Here is a picture what the molasses tank that Domenic and Joey saw would have looked like.

On page 10, Joey can hear the sound of the elevated train down on Commercial Street. For Joey, it might have sounded something like this.

On pages 15-16, Domenic and Joey hear two words used by other characters: “wop” and “mick.” According to, “wop” is an offensive word or slur meaning “an Italian or person of Italian descent.” And “mick” is an offensive word or slur meaning “a person of Irish birth or descent.”

Even in just one chapter of “A Place for Joey”, there is plenty of investigation to be done into the story’s setting and what it would have looked and felt like to be tagging along with Domenic and Joey in the North End.

School, School, School

I’m taking a break from the blog until December or so. I’m drowning in school work! I’m taking classes at Simmons College this semester in hopes of getting a school librarian certificate in MA soon. I’ll be back back with more New England books in December.

The Farm Summer, 1942

The Farm Summer, 1942, by Donald Hall, is about a boy who travels to his grandparents’ New Hampshire farm to spend the summer of 1942. Peter is a city kid from San Francisco and has never been to visit
The Farm Summer, 1942; written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barry Moser

The Farm Summer, 1942; written by Donald Hall and illustrated by Barry Moser

his grandparents. Everything is new to Peter as he experiences farm and country life for the first time: drinking milk fresh from the cow, throwing hay into the hayrack, feeding horses from the hand, singing hymns at church on Sunday evenings, and enjoying homemade gingersnaps and rhubarb pie.

Barry Moser’s illustrations are gorgeous! He used watercolor paints. Did you ever try to paint with watercolors? It’s very hard because you can’t make a mistake; if you do, you have to start all over again. The colors also tend to run on the paper if you have too much water on the brush. Moser’s pictures are so bright and perfect! I especially like the expressions on characters’ faces; he did those very well.

A farmer loading a hayrack. From Flickr: University of Delaware Library

A farmer loading a hayrack. From Flickr: University of Delaware Library

Peter’s father is a U.S. Navy officer stationed in the South Pacific during World War II. His mother is a professor of mathematics at a university in San Francisco. In the early summer of 1942, Peter and his mother fly across the country to New York City. She has been hired by the U.S. government to work on a “secret project” there–probably the Manhattan Project, the government’s effort to design an atomic bomb.  She and Peter then take a train to Boston, where she heads back to New York and Peter continues north to the White Mountains. Peter’s grandfather picks him up at the Gale Station train stop near West Andover. Peter rides in a horse and buggy back to the farm.

Gale Station is the large building on the right. I'm not sure who this man was or what the date on the picture is. (Andover Historical Society)

Gale Station is the small building, second from the right. Unfortunately, I don't have a date on this picture either. (Photo courtesy of the Andover Historical Society).

A steam engine on the Boston & Maine railroad, 1956. From the Digital Commonwealth.

A steam engine on the Boston & Maine railroad, 1956. From the Digital Commonwealth.

Peter's grandfather in his horse and buggy would have looked much like this Amish farmer. From Flickr: cindy47452

Peter's grandfather in his horse and buggy would have looked much like this Amish farmer. From Flickr: cindy47452

The farm contains a mix of the old and the new. Peter’s grandparents are slow to adopt new technology; it may be too expensive or, more likely, they are traditional people. When Peter’s dad was a boy on the farm, there was no indoor plumbing in the house. They used an outhouse and got their water from a hand pump. They have a cast-iron wood stove that they use not only to heat their house but to cook on. They use a horse and buggy to travel intead of a car–even though cars were common in 1942. However, we know there is electricity in their house because Peter and his grandparents listen to radio broadcasts of war news. In the story, they listen to Gabriel Heatter, a famous radio personality who provided news during World War II; click here to listen to one of Heatter’s broadcasts on December 7, 1942.

An old cast iron wood stove. From Flickr: Scott Ableman

An old cast iron wood stove. From Flickr: Scott Ableman

The farm that Donald Hall and Barry Moser, the illustrator, probably had in mind while writing the book was Hall’s own farm near Eagle Pond, north of West Andover. The illustrations show a white farm house with green shutters, similar to Hall’s farm. As in the story, trains formerly ran along the east side of Eagle Pond. The tracks are now gone and have been replaced by a trail.

Eagle Pond Farm. The farm house in the story is loosely based on the one in the picture.

Eagle Pond Farm. The farm house in the story is loosely based on the one in the picture.

Peter meets people who sing songs and tell stories very different from the ones you would hear in San Francisco. His grandfather recites a poem for him about a man who ran away scared when he saw his first train. (I couldn’t find a poem like this that Hall might have been thinking of, though I tried very hard!) At church, children sing a hymn called “Life is Like a Mountain Railroad.” (see the YouTube video below). And, of course, in the country there are always tall tales to be told. Peter’s Uncle Gene tells a good one about snow during the Blizzard of ’88 piling higher than the tops of houses. That was a real blizzard in 1888 that dropped about 30-40 inches in snow in the Andover, NH area, but that wouldn’t have been enough to cover a house completely! You can read more about the Blizzard of ’88 in a book written byJim Murphy, Blizzard; it describes how the blizzard affected New York City.

A picture of Keene, NH after the blizzard of '88. From Flickr: Keene & Chester Counties Historical Photos

A picture of Keene, NH after the blizzard of '88. From Flickr: Keene & Chester Counties Historical Photos

The Farm Summer, 1942 provides a real sense of what life was like on a small farm during the 1940s and World War II. What fun it must have been for kids living on a farm during that time! I hope you’ll take a closer look at Farm Summer, 1942 and learn more about rural life in 1940s New England.

Peter and his grandfather cross the Cilleyville covered bridge in the story.

Peter and his grandfather cross the Cilleyville covered bridge in the story.


Donald Hall biography

Boston & Maine Railroad History

Andover (NH) Historical Society

Lost on a Mountain in Maine

Donn Fendler

Here is Donn Fendler just after he was rescued. He is holding the gunny sack he used to fight off bugs for the last few days before he was rescued. (AP Photo, file)

Lost on a Mountain in MaineLost on a Mountain in Maine is a true story about a 12 year old boy who got lost during a hike on Mt. Katahdin. Donn Fendler was climbing Katahdin with his father, two brothers, and two friends in July 1939 when clouds descended on the mountain and he became separated from the rest of the group. Donn eventually descended the mountain by himself, but on the wrong side from the way he had climbed it. He wandered in the Maine wilderness for the next nine days, surviving only on strawberries and water from the stream he was following. He was rescued when he arrived at the East Branch of the Penobscot River and people at a hunting camp close by called the authorities.

Katahdin trail map

This map can be hard to read in spots, but it gives you an idea of the area. Compare this one with the Google map below. You can see Baxter Peak at the bottom. The Hunt Trail that Donn climbed the mountain on approaches it from the left. Donn wandered north into the Great Basin area. You can see the Saddle Trail headed in that direction. Donn crossed the Saddle Trail at least once while coming down. He wandered far off this map to the north over the next 9 days. See the Google map below to find out just how far!

Donn and his friend Henry Condon walked ahead of the group and reached Baxter Peak on Mt. Katahdin before the others. It was very cold up there with clouds swirling around like fog. They saw a man walking toward them from the Knife Edge, a long ridge that extends generally east from Baxter Peak. Henry wanted to wait for the man to arrive at Baxter Peak so that they could walk back with an adult to rejoin the rest of the group further down the mountain. But Donn was cold and didn’t want to wait. So he began walking alone down the mountain. He soon lost the trail in the jumble of rocks and couldn’t find his family. Then it began to sleet and a turn dark. He needed to get down below treeline to protect himself from the weather.

Donn saw clouds very much like this during his hike.

This is the kind of scene Donn would have seen while coming off Baxter Peak. Lots of big, jagged rocks and all covered in clouds. From Flickr: KW0326

















He walked further down the mountain until he was in a forest. Unfortunately, he had walked down the north side of the mountain in a very different direction from where his family was camped at Katahdin Stream. He walked down into the Great Basin area to the north of Baxter Peak (see the trail map above).

Eventually, he came upon a small brook and remembered the following bit of wisdom from the Boy Scouts: “When lost, follow a stream down. It will lead to a larger stream, and there are always camps along the larger streams.” This brook fed into Wassataquoik Stream. Check out the Google map below. Wassataquoik Stream is waaaaaaaay to the north of Baxter Peak!  Donn described his trip to backwoods guides after he was rescued. They figured out that he had walked more than 100 miles while he was lost. He walked between 10 and 14 miles each day–and he walked barefoot through the woods with no trail for most of the 9 days! That’s because his sneakers got torn up from walking on sharp rocks and then his feet swelled up from bug bites and wouldn’t have fit in them anyway. Wassataquoik Stream flows far northward, then back south and east to meet up with the East Branch of the Penobscot River. It was a very rocky stream, as most Maine streams are, and sometimes hard to follow.

Donn followed this stream all the way to the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

Donn followed this stream all the way to the East Branch of the Penobscot River.

During his wandering, Donn lost his jeans and sneakers. His jeans got wet and cold so he took them off. He carried them for awhile, but then accidentally dropped them into a whitewater section of the stream. He couldn’t get them back. This meant that he had a whole lot of skin available for the mosquitos, moose flies, black flies, copperhead flies, and no-see-ums to feast on. His feet swelled up and the bites made him miserable.

Imagine thousands of these beasts swarming around you plus many other kinds of flies too.

Imagine thousands of these beasts swarming around you plus many other kinds of flies too.

Donn ate only wild strawberries because he didn’t think he could correctly identify blueberries or any other berries. He saw trout in the stream several times but was worried that he shouldn’t eat them raw because he believed he could get sick. One time while eating strawberries, he came face to face with a black bear–also eating strawberries!

Would you be scared if you spent the night alone in the woods with no shelter? Donn might have been more scared if he wasn’t so tired each night from his walking all day. Even at night, things are still happening in the forest. Some animals are moving around. Sometimes the wind blowing in the trees can make unusual sounds that make you wonder what’s out there in the dark. Donn only mentioned one forest night sound in the book: the screech owl. They can sound really scary in the dark. Click here to listen to a screech owl.

Donn came face-to-face with a black bear while eating strawberries. From Flickr: bobtravis

Donn came face-to-face with a black bear while eating strawberries. From Flickr: bobtravis

One of the first things you’ll notice about this book are the old-fashioned words. When Donn experiences something painful or when he’s surprised at something, he’ll say, “Christmas!” This is about the same as if you or I said “Wow!” or “Crap!” or maybe some worse words that I can’t write here and if I did, my mom would wash my mouth out with soap. Remember: this all happened about 70 years ago!

It’s amazing how Donn never gives up hope that he’ll be rescued or that he’ll find civilization again. He always believed that a camp and safety could be just around the next bend in the stream. So he kept walking day after day for nine days! He didn’t panic; he just accepted his difficult situation and kept believing that he could get out of it soon.

If you’re a hiker or if you’ve read about wilderness survival or if you think you’re an all-around pretty smart guy or girl, there are plenty of parts of this book where you would second-guess Donn. Why didn’t he just stay on the trail? Why didn’t he keep better track of his pants and sneakers instead of losing them? There are notes scattered throughout the book by Joseph B. Egan, the author who Donn told his story to. Egan fills the reader in on all kinds of facts and details that Donn wasn’t aware of while he was lost. He also backs up some decisions that Donn made, explaining how they are not so foolish as they might seem to the reader.

Here is Donn today. He is 82 years old.

Here is Donn today. He is 82 years old.

For example, just after he became lost near Baxter Peak, some people wonder why he didn’t just stay in the same spot until he was found by rescuers. Egan tells us that it was getting colder on the mountain and Donn didn’t have the right clothing or shelter to stay there. That night, the temperature was lower than 40 degrees and there was a 40 mile per hour wind on the mountaintop. That means the wind chill was around 27 degrees!

 But I’ve only scratched the surface of this book here! Read Lost on a Mountain in Maine to find out just how a 12 year old boy could survive for 9 days while lost in the Maine wilderness.


Donn More pictures, maps, video of Donn.