Themes & Summary of “The Treasure of Lemon Brown” by Walter Dean Myers: Short Story Analysis

“The Treasure of Lemon Brown” by Walter Dean Myers was first published in 1983. It tells the story of a fourteen-year-old boy who learns a lesson from a homeless man. It’s a popular short story for students.

Summary of “The Treasure of Lemon Brown”

Two nights ago, the principal sent a letter home, a week before report cards, about fourteen-year-old Greg Ridley, who thinks of his dad’s lecture about his poor effort in math. Greg was hoping to join the Scorpions Community Center basketball team, but this letter ends that.

Greg walks through the streets of Harlem as it rains. He doesn’t go home, knowing he’ll be lectured again. He heads for an abandoned tenement where he had seen some people playing checkers last week. He goes into the dark building and into the room near the door with some old furniture in it. He sits on a broken couch. He thinks of the Scorpions and his father’s job as a postal worker.

The storm shakes the windows, and Greg thinks he hears a noise—the sound of something breathing. He tries to identify the source, and goes to the window. An unfamiliar voice from behind warns him not to try anything. Nervously, Greg stands still as a figure takes a step closer.

It’s an old man in raggedy clothing, Lemon Brown, whom Greg has seen around the neighborhood going through the trash. Lemon Brown lives here. He’s worried about the boys stealing his treasure, which he threatens to defend with violence. Greg doubts Lemon has a treasure, but he says every man has one although he won’t reveal what his is.

Lemon used to be Sweet Lemon Brown, a blues singer who traveled through the south, but he’s fallen on hard times. He asks why Greg didn’t go home when it started raining. Greg reminds Lemon of his own son.

Lemon hears a noise and they look out the window. There are three men, thugs, on the stoop; one has a pipe. Lemon and Greg leave the room and go upstairs.

The men want money. They heard him talking about his treasure. Lemon and Greg hear banging downstairs as the men look around. Finding nothing, one of them starts up the stairs. They see the flashlight beam and hear the noise from the stairwell.

Lemon walks to the top of the stairs and stands with his arms over his head. The thug tells him to throw his money down and he won’t get hurt. Greg is panicked. He hears the man stepping closer to Lemon.

Greg howls, distracting the men on the steps. Lemon hurls himself at them. There’s noise, footsteps and the sound of the door opening. Lemon comes back with their flashlight. He has some bumps and bruises.

They won’t come back now. Greg is going to wait until the coast is clear before leaving. Lemon’s going to leave tomorrow for St. Louis.  They look out the window and see the men sitting on the curb. One of them is looking at his knee.

Greg asks about the treasure again. Lemon says he’ll show him. He unties the string around his right leg. Under the rags is a piece of plastic with newspaper clippings and an old harmonica inside. The clippings are reviews of shows Sweet Lemon Brown performed in over fifty years ago. He used to travel around and play to support his family. When his son, Jesse, grew up he went off to war.

When Jesse was killed, the army sent his possessions back home—the clippings and harmonica that his dad had given him before he went. He treasured them too. Greg’s not sure this treasure was worth risking his life over, but to Lemon it was.

The coast is clear now, so they walk downstairs and go to the door. Greg wishes Lemon well, and they say their goodbyes.

It’s late and the rain has stopped. Greg wonders if he should tell his father about Lemon Brown. He walks up to his apartment, thinking of the lecture he’s going to get. It makes him smile.

Theme: Coming of Age

The experience with Lemon Brown provides two coming of age moments for Greg.

The first is when the thugs are climbing the stairs and Lemon faces them alone. Greg is moved to help by howling, even though he’s afraid and it’s hard for him. The first time he tried, “Nothing came out.” He bears down and gets through it.

Greg is moved to help because he appreciates Lemon now as a person, after learning a bit about him, not just as a homeless old man.

The second moment is his realization after Lemon shows him his treasure. To Lemon, it represents the bond he had with his son, the heritage he was able to pass on to him. Greg now realizes that his father is passing on a “treasure” to him as well. (see Father/Son Relationships)

Theme: Father/Son Relationships

The relationship Greg has with his father certainly doesn’t start out as dysfunctional, but his interaction with Lemon Brown is still going to improve it.

Greg’s dad is depicted as someone who harps on the same things and enforces discipline. He lectures Greg about his poor school performance, and forbids him from joining the basketball team. Greg doesn’t go home right away because he’s not going to start studying and knows this will mean another lecture.

He’s also told Greg the same story of how hard he worked to pass the qualification test for his job. Greg has heard it lots of times and doesn’t find it interesting.

There’s  a notable change in Greg’s attitude at the end of the story. He knows he’s going to be lectured for coming home so late, but it makes him smile. Greg now appreciates what his dad is passing on to him.

To a fourteen-year-old, a treasure has to mean money, gold, or something else with obvious monetary value. Like the thugs who come to steal, Greg assumes Lemon must be talking about something like that. Greg learns that other things can be treasure as well.

Lemon becomes a temporary father-figure for Greg when danger presents itself. When the thugs approach, he gets Greg out of sight, and takes his hand as they wait. When he realizes they’re cornered, Lemon makes himself the target, letting Greg stay hidden. This helps Greg absorb the lesson he gets.

Afterward, he knows how important he is to his dad. As Lemon explained, “What else a man got ‘cepting what he can pass on to his son . . .” Greg knows where he came from, and that’s one part of the “treasure” he’s receiving.

Another part of the “treasure” is his father’s work ethic, which could be examined as a theme in its own right. As Lemon explained, “If you know your pappy did something, you know you can do something too.” Greg knows his dad has been a postal worker for all his (Greg’s) life, and he knows how hard he worked to qualify. His dad might have been motivated to put forth this effort because Greg was on the way, or at least because he knew he would have a child one day.

According to Lemon, Greg knows he can work hard at his school work and succeed because his dad has a strong work ethic.

These two lessons are likely what cause Greg to smile in anticipation of a lecture from his father. His encounter with Lemon makes him appreciate what his own father is passing on to him.

Is the story realistic?

In general terms, yes, but not in all the details.

This story was first published in Boys’ Life, the official magazine of the Boy Scouts. As it was geared toward younger readers, the setting isn’t nearly as gritty as it could be.

While it deals with violence and homelessness, they aren’t presented at their worst. The thugs who come to steal from Lemon don’t have guns or knives. No mention is made that Greg could be in danger from gangs when he’s out at night or that they’re common. While Lemon is homeless and wears rags, he doesn’t seem to be doing as badly as we might expect.

These elements seem to have been intentionally kept in check to make the story suitable for a younger audience.