It was likely Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain that turned me into a Revolutionary War-era nerd when I was in elementary school. Something about the patriotism and the coming-of-age, call-to-adventure nature of this old-school YA book made this gem of historical fiction resonate with me.
In the novel, young Johnny Tremain (or “Johnny Deformed,” as Bart Simpson calls him) suffers an injury working as a silversmith’s apprentice. Losing his supposed calling in fashioning shiny things, he eventually works for a Boston newspaper and becomes a spy—the natural second choice of former enthusiasts of the decorative arts—for the revolutionary group Sons of Liberty. As readers, we are propelled into the burgeoning conflict that would become the American Revolution, through the eyes of a fictional protagonist who lived through the times.
I add this preface to illustrate what it feels like to travel through New England today. As some of America’s oldest and most important cities, there’s a profound sense of history here. A trip farther north into coastal Canada provides an opposing viewpoint, a historical perspective from the other end of the conflict, one no less fascinating.
My trip began in Newport, Rhode Island, a town with a small and idyllic main street, a classic scene of old America. The city’s chief attractions are the Newport Mansions. While most of the renowned structures were built in the 1800s by the wealthy Vanderbilt family (of which respectable CNN newscaster Anderson Cooper is a member), the Preservation Society of Newport County also includes the Arnold Burying Ground and Hunter House. Arnold Burying Ground serves as the burial place for a former governor who was also a relative of the infamous Revolutionary War traitor of the same name. Hunter House formerly belonged to a loyalist during the Revolution, Colonel Joseph Wanton Jr., before he fled to Canada.
Two major mansions here are Marble House and, the most famous one of all, The Breakers. I enjoyed the visit, perhaps even more than visiting Versailles in France. Maybe it’s because the mansions here are more contemporary, making it easier to relate to the residences. They felt more like, as they were, homes.
Boston, Massachusetts is undoubtedly the birthplace of the American Revolution. From legendary stories like the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s Midnight Ride, this small but significant city was the host of some of America’s most remarkable stories. The city is filled with Revolution-era history, most easily enjoyed by following the Freedom Trail, a walking path taking visitors past the city’s many monuments and historic locations. Top attractions in Boston include the Paul Revere Statue, the Paul Revere House, Old North Church, Granary Burying Ground (where patriots like Samuel Adams, John Hancock and the aforementioned Revere are interred), the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum, and Faneuil Hall Marketplace and Quincy Market, just to name a few.
To the north, Boston’s North End district is great for Italian food and pastries (the famous spot being Mike’s Pastry for cannoli). To the west, the expansive park Boston Common is fantastic for a stroll. Here you’ll find the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, dedicated to the American Civil War colonel who led the country’s first all-black regiment, as depicted in the epic film Glory. (I mention this because it’s one of my favorite films.)
What Bar Harbor, Maine lacks in Revolutionary War history, it makes up for in lobster rolls and blueberry ale (it’s a more-than-fair trade). First settled by Europeans in 1763, the city became a place known for lumbering, shipbuilding, agriculture and, notably, fishing. The compact town is easily walkable, full of shops and restaurants, and offers natural attractions like the Land Bridge to Bar Island, a sand bar walking path that appears by whim of the tide. Acadia National Park and Mount Desert Island are also a notable attractions for nature lovers. For an affordable but delicious lobster roll, pastries and local beer, check out Adelmann’s Deli & Grill.
Saint John, in Canada’s New Brunswick province, is the oldest incorporated city in Canada and the country’s third-largest port. The city was transformed into a major settlement by Loyalists fleeing Massachusetts during the Revolution. Aside from its history, Saint John is also known for its natural wonders, such as the Stonehammer UNESCO Global Geopark and the Reversing Falls, a unique phenomenon where the water from the Saint John River flows in opposing directions as it enters the Bay of Fundy.
Last but not least, there’s Halifax, the capital of the province of Nova Scotia. With a stunning waterfront, a lively city and a grand fort, this major economic and governmental center offers plenty to experience. Historic ships and local shops line the Halifax Boardwalk, making it a lovely walk for a sunny day. Within the urban center, the Halifax Public Gardens is a Victorian-era look at nature, an interesting juxtaposition to the expansive Halifax Common, Canada’s oldest public park. In between the two sits a remarkable landmark of history, the Halifax Citadel National Historic Site. The citadel dates back to 1749 when it was called Fort George. It received a major upgrade during the American Revolution with the fear of a possible American or French attack. It was renovated yet again during the War of 1812, when the United States and England went to war. More recently, the site served as headquarters during the World Wars.
The American Revolution is long gone, and we’ve had plenty of atrocious wars to keep our memories filled in the meantime. Still, as William Faulkner once wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” History remains with us beyond the brick and stone, alive and well should we choose to see it.
NEWPORT, RHODE ISLAND (USA)
BOSTON MASSACHUSETTS (USA)