Across Five Aprils
Across Five AprilsINTRODUCTION
Across Five Aprils was first released in the United States in 1964, during the country's five-year-long centennial to commemorate the Civil War. This hundredth anniversary generated numerous books dealing with the conflict between the states, and Irene Hunt's first book garnered critical acclaim from the outset. The novel received a favorable review in the New York Times Book Review, earned a number of awards including the Charles W. Follet Award and the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, and it became a Newbery Honor Book.
The novel tells the story of Jethro Creighton, a nine-year-old boy from a southern Illinois farm family who comes of age during the Civil War. The five Aprils referred to in the title are the five years during which the Civil War raged, beginning with the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 and ending with Confederate General Lee's surrender at Appomattox Court House in April 1865. Hunt explores the effect the war had on those family members that remained at home, shows the tensions that existed in the border states during the war, and examines how differing opinions about the war affected relationships between family members and their neighbors.
Hunt based the book on the stories her grandfather told her about growing up in southern Illinois during the Civil War. Like the protagonist Jethro, Hunt's grandfather was nine years old when the Civil War began. To tell the story of the Creighton family, Hunt relied on family letters, records, and diaries as well as her own extensive research into the period. In her Author's Note, Hunt writes, "As to the story of the Creightons, there is hardly a page in this book on which a situation has not been suggested by family letters and records and by the stories told by my grandfather." She notes that her grandfather "gave his listeners a wealth of detail that enabled us to share with him the anxiety and sorrow of the times as well as the moments of happiness in a close-knit family." In "Books and the Learning Process," her Newbery Medal acceptance speech for her second novel, Up a Road Slowly, Hunt noted that Across Five Aprils presented "the issues, a way of life, and a tragic leaf of history."
Across Five Aprils differs from other Civil War novels in its treatment of the war. Critics have likened the novel to a Greek tragedy, in which the action occurs offstage and the characters discuss and reflect on these events. Through letters and conversations, the characters in Across Five Aprils reflect on the war, its effects, and the peace that will follow. In the development of the main characters, Hunt offers insight into the varying opinions and concerns people had about the war and its objective.
The novel has also been praised for its balanced treatment of the war: Hunt clearly shows that both the North and the South, according to Masha Kabakow Rudman in Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, had "their villains as well as their heroes." The author examines the underlying causes of the war, the perceptions each side held of the other's motives, and the particular tensions that existed in border states, that is, neighboring states that were on opposite sides of the conflict. Illinois, a free state, was populated by people who originally came from the neighboring states of Kentucky, Missouri, and Tennessee, and who often still had family in these states. Although Illinois supported the Union cause, the southern region of the state had residents whose sympathies lay with the South.
Irene Hunt was born in 1907 in Pontiac, Illinois, and as a young child her family moved to Newton, Illinois. Her father died when she was seven, an experience she fictionalized in her second novel, Up a Road Slowly. Hunt and her mother settled on her grandparents' farm outside Newton, where the young girl was enthralled by her grandfather's stories of his Civil War experiences. Hunt earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois at Urbana and her master's from University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. She later attended the University of Colorado for graduate work in psychology.
In addition to being a writer, Hunt was a distinguished teacher. Her first novel, Across Five Aprils, was published when Hunt was fifty-seven years old. Up a Road Slowly (1966), her second novel, won the Newbery Medal in 1967. Her other books include A Trail of Apple Blossoms (1968), No Promises in the Wind (1970), Lottery Rose (1976), William: A Novel (1977), Claws of a Young Century (1980), and The Everlasting Hills (1988).
Hunt died on May 18, 2001, in her native state of Illinois. She was ninety-four years old.
In "Books and the Learning Process," Hunt defines the role books play in the lives of young people:
We adults may preach the values we wish to instill, and the children will turn away from our sermons; but a book, a fine book that mirrors life accurately and honestly—there is the effective substitute for our ineffective sermons.
To Hunt, "Great books do not have to preach. But they do speak to the conscience, the imagination, and the heart of many a child. And they speak with very clear and forceful voices." Across Five Aprils is such a book. Hunt's novel has become a classic because of its treatment of the complexity of the Civil War, and its portrait of what life was like for those left at home.
The novel opens in April 1861 with nine-year-old Jethro Creighton and his mother planting potatoes on their farm in southern Illinois. Jethro is the youngest child of twelve. He was born in 1852, the same year three of his siblings died from infantile paralysis. Jethro lives with his parents, Matthew and Ellen, and his siblings Tom, Jenny, and Bill, as well as his cousin, Eb Carron. Jethro's oldest brother, John, lives nearby with his wife Nancy and their two small boys.
Rumors of a war between the North and the South have reached the Creighton family. Shadrach Yale, the young schoolmaster, prepares to visit the nearby town of Newton to purchase supplies and bring back newspapers. Shadrach teaches at the school where Matthew works as a director, and has become a close friend of the family. Once, when Shadrach contracted typhoid fever, Ellen nursed him back to health.
Jethro reflects on war and on his sister Mary's death. Mary died after leaving a dance with Ed Turner's son. On their way home, their wagon overturned when Travis Burdow, who was bent on causing trouble, fired a shot that spooked the horses. Outraged county residents wanted to hang Travis but Matthew intervened and asked them to be merciful.
Jethro wonders why President Lincoln cannot make a decision about war. His mother explains to him that this decision is a difficult one, because either course of action is a terrible path. One of Jethro's cousins from Kentucky, Wilse Graham, is in the area on business. He stops by the family's farm and stays overnight to visit with them.
Jenny Creighton prepares a special dinner in honor of the family's guest. Talk soon turns to the looming war. Illinois is a free state, where slavery is outlawed, while neighboring Kentucky allows slavery. Graham, a slave owner, tells the Creightons that despite the North's opposition to slavery, the North will never treat the freed slaves as equals. According to Graham, the people of southern Illinois have closer ties to their kin in nearby Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee than they do to the "bigwigs" in Chicago and northern Illinois. He believes England will support the Southern cause because of its dependency on Southern cotton. Two of the Creighton brothers, John and Bill, find themselves with opposing views on the issue. The impending war threatens to divide the Creighton family and their kin. Shadrach returns from Newton with news that Southern forces have fired upon Fort Sumter. The Civil War has begun.
That summer, rallies are held throughout the county to drum up support for the war. The Creightons and their neighbors receive word of the Battle of Bull Run and Ball's Bluff. Shadrach and John make plans to join the Union army. Tom and Eb have already left to join the fighting in early summer. Jethro begins having nightmares about battle. Bill understands the horrors of war and talks about them with Jethro.
In autumn, Jethro visits the graveyard where his sister Mary and his other three siblings are buried. When he returns home, Jethro discovers that Bill and John, always the closest of all the Creighton boys, have argued over their opposing views about the Civil War. Bill has decided to fight for the Confederacy, not because he approves of slavery but because he disapproves of what he calls the "North's arrogance and greed." He has decided to go to Kentucky and join the Confederate army. Jethro, who feels especially attached to Bill, does not want to watch Bill leave.
Word of the first real victory for the North comes in the fall. The town of Newton and many of the Creighton's neighbors support the Union. The Creightons learn of the battles at Fort Henry and at Fort Donelson. Newspapers from the North comment favorably about General Grant and his military prowess. The Creightons worry about Eb and Tom.
Tom sends a letter about the battle at Fort Donelson. Ellen tells Jethro to visit Shadrach and take the letter to him. Jenny and Shadrach are in love, though Shadrach is preparing to leave for battle in support of the Union. Jenny remarks that her mother would let her and Shadrach marry before he leaves, but her father opposes the marriage. Jethro and Shadrach read the letter from Tom, and Shadrach explains the importance of this battle. He uses an atlas to show Jethro the location of Fort Donelson. Shadrach tells Jethro how hard the fighting was at this little town, and notes how difficult the fighting will be as the Union begins moving farther into the heart of the Confederacy. Shadrach explains where the battle lines are drawn, and discusses General McClellan's unwillingness to fight.
Shadrach charges Jethro with reading the newspapers and doing all he can to understand what is happening as the war progresses. Shadrach rebukes Jethro for referring to the president as "ole Abe," telling him that the president should be spoken of with respect. He wants Jethro to continue learning while he is gone, and he leaves his books for Jethro to use. Shadrach tells Jethro that what he reads in the newspaper today will be the history that future generations will study.
Matthew still refuses to let the couple marry. He tells Shadrach that Jenny is too young, and Shadrach respects this decision. Shadrach tells Jethro that when he and Jenny do marry, they want to take Jethro back East to attend school. Shadrach and Jethro discuss Bill's decision to fight for the Confederacy, and Shadrach tells Jethro that what Bill did takes more courage than what Tom and Shadrach are doing.
Ellen gets tremendous headaches that are only alleviated by drinking coffee. She has been trying not to drink coffee because its price has skyrocketed, as have the prices of other staple foods, due to the war. Matthew sends Jethro to their daughter-in-law Nancy's home to borrow some coffee until the Creightons can replenish their supply.
Nancy welcomes Jethro and is glad for the company. She talks with Jethro about how much she misses the way things were before the war changed everything, and asks him to come visit her and the boys more often. Later, after Jethro returns home with the coffee, he is asked to take on a man's job and travel to the town of Newton to purchase coffee and other supplies. Jethro has traveled to Newton before with his father and brothers, but has never made the trip alone. He eagerly accepts this new responsibility.
The next morning, Jethro takes the wagon and team of horses and sets off for Newton. Along the way, Jethro meets a man named Jake Roscoe, who inquires about the battle of Pea Ridge. The man believes his grandson may have fought in this battle and wants more information about what transpired there. The man asks Jethro to bring him a newspaper when Jethro passes by on his return trip. Jethro promises to do so.
Once in the town of Newton, Jethro visits the mill, where he uses his grain as a bargaining tool. When he is finished, he visits Sam Gardiner's store to make his purchases. At the store, Jethro also meets the editor of the county newspaper, Ross Milton. A group of men in the store are talking about the war. For the first time, Jethro sees Dave Burdow, Travis's father. When the men discover who Jethro is, they ask if his father has also come to town. Guy Wortman asks Jethro about his brother Bill's whereabouts, and Jethro says his family has not seen Bill since he left. Wortman wants to know if the family feels animosity toward Bill because he joined the Rebel army. Jethro stands up for Bill, saying that he thinks well of his brother no matter where he is. Wortman becomes enraged at Jethro's response and takes a step towards him but is held back by Ben Harris. Milton tells Wortman he should be fighting in the war instead of fighting it at home.
Milton helps Jethro load his wagon and asks Jethro to join him for dinner at Mrs. Hiles's restaurant. During dinner, Jethro reveals that Thomas Paine, the author of the Revolutionary War tract Common Sense, is his hero. Milton warns Jethro about being careful on his trip home.
Jethro begins to feel very sleepy on the long ride home. He passes by the Burdow place and goes into the woods, where he meets Dave Burdow. Burdow asks to ride with him. Jethro is too young to realize that there could be violence against him. Burdow tells Jethro that he has seen men ride by his home and that he has heard of plots against Jethro. Before they approach a ravine, Burdow takes the reins of the team. As they cross the bridge, a man runs up on the bridge and whips the horses. The horses try to bolt but Burdow handles them. His actions save Jethro and his wagon from harm. Burdow and Jethro stop to give the newspaper to Jake Roscoe. Burdow leaves Jethro, telling him that Wortman was behind the actions at the bridge. When Jethro arrives home, his family welcomes him. He is hesitant to tell them about Wortman and his misadventure at the ravine, but eventually he does so.
Matthew does not sleep that night, and in the morning he admits that he is "afeared" about the situation. He decides to ask his neighbor Ed Turner to ride with him to Newton. He wants to talk to him and others who know Wortman. Ellen wants Matthew to thank Burdow for his actions. Matthew tells her that he regrets bringing her to the farm in 1831 because of all the sorrows she has seen here. He prepares to visit Turner.
While she is inside, Ellen hears a noise, and rushes to the door. She sees that Matthew has fallen, and she finds him unconscious on the ground clutching his left side. Jenny runs to get the Turners, while Ellen and Jethro put Matthew to bed. She sends Jethro to fetch the doctor in Hidalgo. Although Matthew survives this heart attack, he will no longer be a vigorous, strong man.
Jethro becomes the man of the house at age ten by taking on the duties that once belonged to his father. Two weeks later, Turner offers to help Jethro whenever he needs it. He also tells Jethro he has heard about a battle in Tennessee, the Battle at Pittsburg Landing. The Rebels surprised Grant there, and twenty thousand men died—twelve thousand of them Union soldiers. Although it was a Union victory, public sentiment is now shifted against Grant. Jethro and Turner discuss the volatility of public opinion, and how the various generals' reputations rise and fall. Jethro does not tell his father about this news, although he worries about Tom and Eb, who may have been at the battle.
Jenny and Jethro plow the fields, and Jethro enjoys the time he spends with his sister. Since his heart attack, Matthew has changed. He praises his youngest children for their hard work in tending the field, where once he would have just expected such hard work and would not have commented upon it.
Israel Thomas brings the Creightons a letter from Shadrach. Thomas had hoped the letter was from Tom, but tells Jethro it is a letter for Jenny. Jenny usually shares Shadrach's letters with her family, but this letter is a love letter and she does not read all of it aloud. Jethro reacts in anger, and rides to his sister-in-law Nancy's farm. Nancy explains to Jethro how Jenny feels about sharing the letter. When Jethro returns home, Jenny tells him he can read the letter but he refuses.
That night, Jethro suffers from a nightmare and Jenny comforts him. They hear horses outside, and see men approaching their cabin. The men shout Matthew and Bill's names, and call them Copperheads—a term people loyal to the Union used for those with Southern sympathies. The siblings watch as a bundle is thrown at the fence. Jethro investigates and finds a bundle of switches—a warning with a note that reads, "There's trubel fer fokes that stands up fer there reb loving sons."
Nancy and her children begin to spend the night at the Creighton family farm as a safety precaution. Although the Creighton's dog disappears, they do not pay much heed to this. A few nights later, the family wakes to the smell of smoke and the sound of burning hay and wood. They discover that someone has set their barn on fire. Fortunately, their animals are in the pasture instead of the barn, but the family still suffers the loss of hay, grain, harnesses, and a plow. When Jethro tries to get water from the well to extinguish the fire, he finds that the vigilantes have put coal oil in the well to foul the water.
People throughout the county come to the aid of Matthew and his family that spring. They collect a double harness, wagon, and plow for the Creightons, as well as hay and grain. They also clean the well. Sam Turner, Ed's son, brings a huge dog for the family to keep.
Wounded boys begin returning to Cairo with news of the Battle of Shiloh. George Lawrence hears that his son Dan is in Cairo, and leaves to bring him home. Upon his return, George brings Dan to see the Creightons. Dan, not yet twenty, is still weak from his wounds. Dan tells them that he and Tom were together on April 6 when their troop was attacked. General Buell's army arrived with reinforcements. As Tom and Dan happily waved their caps at the new arrivals, Tom was shot dead.
Upon hearing the news, Milton prints a letter in the newspaper chastising the men who terrorized the Creighton farm. He mentions the loss of Matthew's son, and asks what these vigilantes have done for the Union.
Jenny keeps this letter and places it in the family Bible, and then she records Tom's death. As she does this, Jethro sees the record of his birth, as well as the record of his three siblings' deaths the same year he was born. Jethro asks Jenny if she remembers them, and she says her memories of them are growing dim. Jenny tells Jethro about their siblings, and recounts how she and the other children escaped the sickness because they were sent to neighbors. She talks about her fears now that the war has claimed Tom.
There is little gaiety in the county as the war continues. The vandalism at the Creighton farm upsets store owner Sam Gardiner, who has made his feelings known. Others who have spoken out in support of the Creightons have had their businesses vandalized. Tired of waiting for the men to attack his store, Gardiner pretends he will be away for a week. Milton secretly brings Gardiner back to the store, where he hides upstairs. On the third night, a group of men break in. From his upstairs hideaway, Gardiner shoots at the men, hitting one of the men in the behind. The man turns out to be Wortman. The doctor is called to administer to Wortman, who has now become a pathetic figure in the eyes of his gang of vigilantes. The next day's newspaper carries a story about the incident. This event causes Wortman to lose his stature, and the vigilantes come to their senses.
The newspapers carry accounts of the battle at Corinth. General Halleck entered Corinth expecting to capture the Confederate troops, but Beauregard had already secretly withdrawn his men. Jethro reflects on how McClellan, once the brightest star, has been deemed ineffectual, and how Halleck, a military science author, has lost his standing. Confederate General Robert E. Lee and General Stonewall Jackson have become heroes, yet few Union generals command the same heroic stature.
By autumn of 1862, the Union is not faring well. People are losing faith in the Union generals and are criticizing the president. Soldiers are beginning to desert as well. The Creighton's neighbors rebuild the Creighton family barn. A wagonload of logs arrives from Burdow. Jethro tells Milton to thank Burdow for him. Milton replies that he has already done so, noting that others in the county have also extended their hand to Burdow since the incident on the bridge. Men begin talking about the battle at Antietem, and they criticize Lincoln. Israel Thomas says he is not against the president, and notes that it is easy for men, preachers, and newspaper editors to tell the president how do his job.
The Creightons receive a letter from Shadrach, who discusses the devotion of General McClellan's men to their leader. Shadrach writes of the bloody battle at Antietem, and his own feelings for McClellan. He thinks the general is afraid to make a mistake that will cost him his men's respect. He feels McClellan does not possess the "cold approach to killing" necessary to win a war. The Creightons worry over Shadrach's safety.
By the winter of 1862, thousands of men begin to desert the Union Army. Hundreds of them congregate at nearby Point Prospect campground. These desperate men steal food and are considered dangerous. They murder Hig Philips, a bachelor who hired a substitute to fight for him in the war. In February 1863, Federal Registrars visit the Creighton farm looking for deserters, including Jethro's cousin Eb. Jenny tells them he is not at the Creighton farm and asks the Federal Registrars if they have searched Point Prospect, where many of the deserters are camped. The men tell them that if Eb does show up, they should report it immediately or else they will be in a great deal of trouble.
The following day, while plowing his brother John's fields, Jethro hears a birdcall. After investigating the sound, he discovers a sick and skeletal Eb hiding in the trunk of a dead tree. Jethro gives him his lunch, and tells Eb about Matthew's heart attack and Tom's death. Eb asks about Bill, and Jethro tells him the family has not heard from him since he left. Jethro continues to bring Eb food and blankets. Although Jethro feels he is being disloyal to Tom by helping Eb, he also feels compassion for Eb, who is sick, hungry, and pitiful.
Jethro wants to ask an adult's advice about the situation, but he does not want to burden his father with this problem. Jenny realizes that something is bothering Jethro and asks if he has seen Eb, but Jethro refuses to reveal his secret. Finally, Jethro decides to write to President Lincoln about Eb and ask his advice. Turner brings mail to the Creighton family, and there is a letter from President Lincoln. Jethro tells them why he wrote to the president, revealing Eb's secret. In his letter, Lincoln writes that he will allow all men improperly absent from their posts to return without suffering any consequences. He notes that while his critics may question his decision, he prefers to err on the side of mercy. Hearing this, Eb returns to his post.
In May 1863, the Creightons learn of the Battle of Chancellorsville. The generals of the Confederate army defeat the superior numbers of the Union army. Jenny and Jethro worry about Shadrach, and question whether he was one of the seventeen thousand Union soldiers who were captured or who died. The Creightons receive a letter from Shadrach in June, and another from John, who was with the Army of the Cumberland. Grant begins fortifying Vicksburg. There is a public outcry to get rid of Grant, but the president refuses. The family receives news of the tremendous battle at Gettysburg in July, and soon after more news about the Battle of Vicksburg.
Shadrach's aunt sends the Creightons a letter telling them that he was wounded at Gettysburg and is recovering in a Washington, D.C. hospital. His aunt explains that Shadrach keeps asking for Jenny, and she requests that the Creightons allow Jenny to travel to Washington to be with Shadrach. The aunt offers to pay Jenny's travel expenses. After some discussion, Matthew and Ellen allow Jenny to travel to Shadrach's bedside.
Jethro roams the fields and finds himself at the schoolhouse annex where Shadrach once lived. A new schoolteacher had been in residence the previous year, but Jethro found him lacking. Jethro does not want to go to school, and after talking at length with the new schoolteacher, Matthew agrees to allow Jethro to stay home and to study on his own.
Milton sends a letter saying that Shadrach is improving. Eventually, the Creightons give their permission for Shadrach and Jenny to marry. Jenny writes Jethro and asks him to record her marriage in the family Bible. She tells him of her experiences in Washington, where she is feeding and nursing the sick.
Nancy has not heard from her husband John in almost six months, and she is concerned. News of the Battle of Chickamauga reaches the Creightons. In this battle, the Army of the Cumberland fought General Bragg, and then Longstreet's army. The Confederates outnumbered the Union soldiers and defeated them. However, the Army of the Cumberland under General George Thomas held the line, and Thomas becomes known thereafter as the "Rock of Chickamauga." John finally sends a letter recounting the events of the battle, which Jethro copies and sends on to Jenny and Shadrach.
The longer the war continues to drag on, the more vengeful the Union army becomes. Grant is appointed commander of the Union army. The Democratic Party nominates McClellan to run against Lincoln in the election of 1864. The Union is victorious at Mobile. The Army of the Cumberland fights at Nashville and wins. The North is the victor at Cedar Creek. These victories galvanize the North, and Lincoln is re-elected with the support of the soldier vote.
John writes to his family and tells them that while feeding Confederate prisoners after the battle of Nashville, he discovered his brother Bill. John tells Bill everything that has happened to the Creighton family, including Matthew's heart attack and Tom's death. John explains that when the two brothers shook hands neither wanted to let go. When John was ready to leave, Bill called him back and told him to tell their mother that he was not at the Pittsburg Landing battle where Tom was killed.
The country waits anxiously to discover what has become of Sherman and his Army of the Tennessee since the burning of Atlanta. In December, General Sherman telegraphs Lincoln that he is presenting the president with the city of Savannah as a Christmas present. When men learn of Sherman's march to the sea and his soldier's treatment of civilians, many are disgusted. After Sherman moves through South Carolina, Turner brings a letter from his boy detailing the burning of Columbia. Turner laments that Congress and the whole country is condoning this behavior by the Union army. Milton expresses his concern about what type of peace will follow the war. He hopes Lincoln will be able to bind the wounds of the nation. He also wonders what will become of the freed slaves. He thinks that, for years afterward, many will still be waiting for the true fulfillment of that promise of freedom.
When peace finally comes in April 1865, Newton celebrates. The celebration is short-lived, because soon word reaches them that the president has been murdered. Lincoln's body is brought back to Springfield by train. Jethro wants to see Lincoln, but he has fields to plow and responsibilities at home. As he lays in the field resting, Shadrach comes to him. He and Jenny have returned to visit. Shadrach tells Jethro that he and Jenny plan to take Jethro with them to be educated back East.
Mercy and Forgiveness
The theme of mercy and forgiveness is woven throughout Across Five Aprils. Matthew prevents an angry mob from lynching young Travis Burdow after Burdow's actions have caused a wagon to overturn on Matthew's daughter, Mary, killing her. Later his mercy is repaid when Travis's father protects Jethro from a gang of vigilantes who seek vengeance against Jethro because Bill has joined the Confederate army. This merciful attitude is mirrored later in the book with Abraham Lincoln's decision to extend clemency to those soldiers who have deserted the Union army. Lincoln notes that while many may criticize his decision, he prefers to err "on the side of mercy."
As the war stretches on longer and longer with the South determined to keep fighting, the Union army begins to lose its sense of mercy towards the Southern civilians. As one voice laments, "There be limits even in war. This was mean, mad destruction. This was war on babies and their mothers, on the sick and old and helpless." Not all men feel this way: some have lost their own sense of mercy and forgiveness. They agree with those who proclaim that "they brought it on themselves. They hev to pay the price." As Sherman's Army of the Tennessee continues its wanton pillaging and destruction of the South, Turner thinks of his eighteen-year-old son and asks, "Kin a lad come through weeks of this kind of action without becomin' a hardened man? Is human life goin' to be forever cheap to him and decency somethin' to mock at?"
Lincoln continues to pursue a merciful attitude toward the South despite those who criticize him or demand harsher treatment of the enemy. However, a merciful peace seems to be a mirage. Ross Milton tells Jethro that "the hate that burns in old scars, and the thirst for revenge that has distorted men until they should be in straitjackets rather than in high office" may keep the country from healing as it should. Both Ross and Jethro have faith and trust that Lincoln's merciful attitude will bind the nation together again. Milton tells Jethro, "My hope lies in Abraham Lincoln." However, that faith is shattered when Lincoln is assassinated.
Women and War
In her novel, Hunt examines the changing role of women during the war. When the story opens, Jenny is fourteen years old and in love with Shadrach, the local schoolteacher. Her father feels that "Jenny is fur and away too young to be thinkin' about Shad or ary other young man." Shadrach respects this decision, and tries to keep his distance from Jenny.
During the Civil War era, women's roles revolved around the home. Jenny's responsibilities are the typical ones that women of the period had: she tends a vegetable garden and prepares the meals. Jenny takes pleasure in her work: "She was red-cheeked with pride over her efforts at providing a good dinner." But after her brothers leave for the war and her father suffers a heart attack, Jenny takes on greater responsibility. She helps with the plowing and other farm chores in addition to her original duties. She and her younger brother become closer as they work together to maintain the farm. During the war, women often became the sole providers as they assumed the men's duties around the farm.
After Shadrach is critically wounded at Gettysburg, Jenny's sphere expands even more. Her father has a change of heart. "I only know that I can't stand to see her suffer this way if there be one chance fer her to see him alive." She travels from Illinois to Washington, D.C. to be with Shadrach. Soon after, sixteen-year-old Jenny marries Shadrach. Her parents have granted her permission to marry at a much younger age than they would have at the beginning of the war. Marriages between couples of a young age were not uncommon during the war years because of the uncertainty that war brought.
In Washington, Jenny's role continues to evolve; she begins volunteering at the hospital where Shadrach is recovering. She writes to her family that "Aunt Victoria said it wasn't right for a young girl to be here, but I made her see that I couldn't set at home when others was needing help so much." Jenny is no longer a sheltered young lady, and finds herself exposed to an atmosphere that would have been considered unfit for a young girl before the war. "Some of the things I see would of made me faint a year ago, but now I face them the way the nurses and doctors do," she writes in a letter home. The war has changed Jenny and her place in the world, just as it changed many other women during the Civil War era.
Across Five Aprils stresses the importance of family bonds in times of war. The members of the close-knit Creighton family exhibit love, responsibility, and loyalty towards each other even when doing so might be perilous. Jethro's love and loyalty to his family never wavers. He remains true to Bill, who has chosen to fight for the Confederacy, even when doing so brings harm to himself. When his cousin Eb deserts from the Union army, Jethro is conflicted about whether or not to help Eb, because doing so could cause trouble for him and his family. Jethro provides Eb with clothing and food, and keeps Eb's whereabouts a secret—even from his beloved sister Jenny—to ensure that Eb remains safe and that his family is shielded from any trouble that might transpire from his actions.
When John discovers his brother Bill among the Confederate prisoners his regiment has captured, John does not abandon Bill. Rather, he asks his captain for permission to visit with his brother. John disagrees with the decision Bill has made to fight for the Confederacy, yet he still feels love for his brother and seeks to establish contact with him—even though admitting that his brother is a Confederate could have negative ramifications for himself. John knows that Bill has had no contact with the Creighton family, and he wants Bill to know how the family has fared throughout the war. The Creightons remain true to each other even when the perilous circumstances they find themselves in might dictate an alternate course of action. For the Creightons, the bonds of family transcend all else.
Southern Illinois During the Civil War
When the Civil War began in 1861, southern Illinois, in which this novel is set, was primarily agricultural. A free state where slavery was prohibited, Illinois borders Kentucky and Missouri—two states that permitted slavery. Many residents of southern Illinois had familial ties to these slave states. In the novel, Ellen Creighton's family lives in Kentucky, and her nephew Wilse Graham comes from Kentucky to visit before the war begins. As Graham points out in the book, many southern Illinois families had closer ties to the South than they did to the more industrialized northern region of Illinois, with its big cities. The farmers of southern Illinois sent their products down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, and developed relationships over the years with other southern farmers and merchants.
The Civil War divided the nation, families, and communities. Many families found themselves split between the opposing sides of the conflict. As with the Creightons, some families had sons fighting against each other just as Bill and his brothers John and Tomdid. Communities also became divided over the issue. Vigilantes like Wortman and his band of men often terrorized families believed to have secret loyalties to the South. These people were likened to poisonous snakes, and were branded "Copperheads."
A labor-intensive process, farming required the assistance of all members of the family. With many of the men and older boys fighting in the war, the duties of maintaining the farm fell to the women and younger children who remained on the farm during the war. Women took on roles that were formerly the domain of men. Anxiety over planting and harvesting the crop, taking care of the animals, and preserving food for the winter were coupled with fear for the men fighting hundreds of miles away. The only form of communication was through letters that could take weeks to reach the recipients.
Centennial Celebration of the Civil War
In the early 1960s, the United States marked the hundredth anniversary of the Civil War. During this period, a number of books about the conflict were published, including Bruce Catton's classic Civil War trilogy, The Coming Fury, Terrible Swift Sword, and Never Call Retreat. Speeches, parades, and reenactments of events such as the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1961 and the Battle of Gettysburg in 1963 commemorated the anniversary. Irene Hunt's novel Across Five Aprils appeared during this period.
The civil rights movement was at its peak from 1955 to 1965. During this time, people worked to guarantee basic civil rights for all citizens, regardless of race. Hunt's book examines some of the history in which inequality is rooted. Visiting from Kentucky, Ellen's nephew Wilse Graham, a slave owner, remarks on the hypocrisy of the North:
If tomorrow every slave in the South had his freedom and came up North, would yore abolitionists get the crocodile tears out of their eyes so they could take the black man by the hand? Would they say, "We'll see that you get goodpayin' work fitted to what you're able to do—we'll see that you're well housed and clothed—we want you to come to our church and yore children to come to our schools."
Later, after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, Ross Milton reflects on what it truly means. He believes that, despite the passage of the amendment, for decades to come "there will be men and women with dark faces who will walk the length and width of this land in search of the bright promise the thirteenth amendment holds out to them." Hunt's words not only applied to the years immediately after the war, but to the ongoing civil rights struggle that was still taking place when she wrote the book.
The Thirteenth Amendment may have ended slavery, but it also ushered in an era of segregation in the South, where blacks and whites were kept separated. Black children attended different schools than white children, black families lived in areas separate from white families, and blacks had separate public facilities from whites. Some states instituted a "poll tax" to discourage black citizens from voting, though poor white voters were seldom asked to pay the tax. In the 1950s and 1960s, millions of Americans called for an end to segregation, and demanded equal rights for all citizens. In January 1964, the Twenty-Fourth Amendment abolished poll taxes. However, the fight for equal rights continues today.
Across Five Aprils garnered praise from the time of its publication in 1964. In his review for the New York Times Book Review, John K. Bettersworth writes that the book is "an intriguing beautifully written book—a prize to those who take the time to read it, whatever their age." In the entry "Irene Hunt" in American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide From Colonial Times to the Present, Alethea K. Helbig notes that it is a "tightly knit novel," and specifically mentions the book's "convincing well-developed characters."
In her book Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, Masha Kabakow Rudman writes that "Hunt's Across Five Aprils handles the rarely considered issue of what happens to the people who are not actively involved with the war but who nevertheless suffer." According to Rudman, the novel's evenhanded treatment of the North and South helps readers understand that "what the history books depict as a clear-cut cause is not, after all, that simple."
Critics often recognize Hunt for offering her readers a primer on the causes and effects of the war. "The book helps students to compare different accounts of battles, causes of war, and issues in order to begin to construct a balanced, informed view," writes Rudman. Many critics feel Hunt's first two novels, Up A Road Slowly and Across Five Aprils, represent her strongest work. Helbig writes that "although Hunt's earliest books are her best ones, all of them represent serious attempts to confront the problems of life in story form. They hold out the old-fashioned virtues of hard work, courage, compassion, integrity, and responsibility and stress the importance of education."
Janice M. Alberghene
In the following excerpt, Alberghene offers an analysis of the development of the protagonist Jethro Creighton's conscience.
Writing some twenty odd years ago for the New York Times Book Review, John K. Bettersworth called Across Five Aprils "a conversation-piece of a novel, where most of the action is something talked about, as in a Greek play." The reference to Greek theatre is apt, yet Irene Hunt's Civil War novel could just as appropriately be called a touchstone of Americanism in children's literature—and because of rather than in spite of that conversational quality. In this essay I explore that Americanism in terms of both the book's subject matter and its inner drama of growth and change; by showing how a "conversation-piece" can also be a "touchstone," I hope … to show that Hunt sees the paired activities of conversation and reflection as vital to the formation of ideal American character.
The 1990 film Civil War Diary was based on the novel Across Five Aprils. It stars Todd Duffey as Jethro and Hollis McCarthy as Jenny. The film was written and directed by Kevin Meyer, and was released on videocassette by Rhino Video in 1993.
An unabridged audio CD recording of Across Five Aprils was released by Audio Bookshelf in 2002. It is narrated by Terry Bregy, and is also available on audiocassette.
While there is little need to argue that the war between the states is an American subject—in fact, a pre-eminently American subject—the extent to which Across Five Aprils explores the subject is worth remarking. Set in the southern part of the border state of Illinois, the book chronicles the years 1861–65 in the lives of the Creighton family. Matthew and Ellen preside over a household which includes their nephew Eb as well as their daughter Jenny and sons Bill, Tom, and Jethro. John, the eldest son, lives a half-mile away with his wife Nancy and their two young boys. Shadrach Yale, the area's young schoolmaster, and Ross Milton, its newspaper editor, complete the roster of principal characters. Together with Wilse Graham, Ellen's nephew who visits at the beginning of the novel, the characters present a variety of responses to the War and the tension which engendered it.
Their intensity of response results as much from setting as temperament. Although nearby Kentucky is a slave state, cousin Wilse claims that folks in southern Illinois (a free state) "'air closer by a lot to the folks in Missouri and Kaintuck than you are to the bigwigs up in Chicago and northern Illinois.'" Hunts suggests in her "Author's Note" that her family history prompted her choice of southern Illinois as the Creighton's home, but it is Hunt's skill as a writer that underlines the connections between personal and local events and those of national interest. The president is Matthew's "own Ol' Abe," and the conflict is with people who are closely related—folks who live a nearby border away—not abstract entities labelled "Northerners" or "Southerners."
Brother fighting brother has long been a staple of Civil War stories, but Hunt brings a freshness to her version by funneling the story through young Jethro's reactions to this incident. Indeed, as he reflects upon the events which swirl around him, Jethro serves as the reader's constant point of reference. Only nine when the novel begins, Jethro himself never goes off to fight, but he experiences something just as powerful: an inner civil war of divided loyalties and emotions. The remainder of Across Five Aprils … shows his growing awareness of the complexity of moral choice. This awareness, rather than a trumpeting of battle dates and names, is Hunt's real subject in the novel. The initial step Jethro takes towards understanding moral choice is a big one: he learns that images of power and glory are often specious. The euphoria they create of feeling good is no guarantee of moral goodness. The younger boy imagines war as
loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores at Newton; it meant men riding like kings … some men were killed, of course, but the stories of war that Jethro remembered were about the men who had managed to live through the thunder and explosion.
Even so, thoughts of his sister Mary's death interrupt Jethro's reverie. Mary was killed in an accident precipitated by Travis Burdow … Burdow escaped the community's angry intention to lynch him only through Matthew Creighton's intervention. Jethro links his own anger and confusion over his father's action to his response to President Lincoln's reluctance to declare war; neither man shows "the hard, unyielding attitude that he [Jethro] admired in the talk of Tom and Eb and their friends."
Jethro's perplexed sigh while thinking these thoughts alerts his mother's attention. She questions him, then responds to his confusion … with simple eloquence: "'He's like a man standin' where two roads meet, Jeth …, and one road is as dark and fearsome as the other; there ain't a choice between the two, and yet a choice has to be made.'" Though Ellen Creighton's words are simple, both the choice and her awareness of it are complex.
The set of events … may be schematized in the following way: presentation of Jethro's initial stance, discussion with a thoughtful elder, the boy's emotional response, change in his way of thinking. This sequence repeats throughout the novel, as Jethro's understanding continues to evolve.
Having learned that war is real, not a game of dreams of glory, and seeking some fixed point of reference, Jethro looks to Bill for confirmation that "the South started it." Bill corrects his brother. The North, the South, the West, and the East started the war, or more specifically, the actions of those regions' old slavers, factory owners, cotton growers, and wild talkers. All are responsible.
It is fitting to … consider Hunt's technique of reporting violence rather than showing it firsthand. Like the Greek dramatists Bettersworth was recalling when he reviewed Across Five Aprils, Hunt's intent is to make her audience reflect on violence, not revel in it. Action is reported to (the principal characters) or embedded in passages which emphasize the causes and/or consequences of the event. Hunt shows the protagonist—whose actions and thoughts engage the reader's attention—struggling to understand violence, and her narrative provides the reader with contexts for tracing the chains of action and reaction which lead up to and away from the scene of conflict.
"chains of action and reaction" is another way of saying "history." By definition, every work of historical fiction has history as its subject, but only some of these novels include thinking historically as a thematic concern. In Hunt's novel, as shown above by Bill's catalogue of each faction's warmongers, thinking historically is linked to the issue of responsibility. "Wild talkers," one of the groups of people who Bill faults, do not think responsibly, even thought they are grown men. How then can ten-year-old Jethro be expected to evaluate events in their proper historical context? The answer lies in proper guidance from knowledgeable adults.
We can see that this guidance begins at home, and that both mother and father play important roles. In talking with Jethro, Ellen helps him sort through his conflicting impulses. Matthew is never shown talking with Jethro, but he is an important role model as a man whose words of reason command the respect of the mob intent upon seeking Burdow's death. Moreover, Matthew's decision to calm the mob is vindicated when Burdow's father saves Jethro from Guy Wortman's prejudice and hate. This chain of events shows that reason and mercy are hallmarks of strength, not weakness.
Jethro is then understandably confused when Bill, on whom he "set such great store" enlists in the Confederate Army. This time he talks with Shadrach Yale, who is friend as well as schoolmaster. He explains battle strategy and sets lessons for the boy to study while he is away at war. These lessons include the regular course of study plus the reading of the newspapers. As teacher, Shad prepares Jethro for the task of seeking information from sources outside the home. He also helps to further the boy's sense of history and its connection to his own life; the accounts Jethro reads today (descriptions of the present) will, in the not-too-distant future, be recorded as the past.
Reading the newspaper, Jethro discovers as much controversy as fact … He has learned to compare what is said by how it is said. Jethro has become critical in the best sense of the word; he compares and evaluates what he sees and hears.
Both Jethro's newly acquired intellectual skills and his emotional and spiritual growth are put to the test when Jethro confronts the major moral decision of his young life. Soon after Federal Registrars search the Creighton homestead for Cousin Eb, now a deserter, Jethro learns that Eb is hiding in the woods nearby. Jethro finds him a truly pitiable creature, yet he is torn not only by his feelings of loyalty to his brother Tom, killed at Pittsburgh [sic] Landing, but also by the authority of the law which forbids sheltering fugitives. Jethro considers but rejects transferring the dilemma to his father. "'Why, he'd be caught in the same trap I'm in now; I'd put him the spot where any way he decided would be bad—hurtful to a man's conscience.'"
The key word here is "conscience." Responsibility is an issue as well. Up until now, Jethro has settled matters of conscience after having learned from a discussion with an adult who clarified or expanded his sense of the moral issue under consideration. Jethro's understanding of decision making involves individual responsibility as the final step, but this step is preceded by an exchange of views so that the issue can be seen in its widest relevant context. Responsibility may be individual, but decisions always have a social dimension.
Consequently, in appealing to President Lincoln (to whom he writes), Jethro does not simply transfer his dilemma to an authority figure other than his father. Writing to Lincoln is also an acceptance of responsibility, since Jethro must tell the President his (Jethro's) role in sheltering Eb. Jethro's belief that Lincoln looks at problems from all sides is confirmed by the President's reply to Jethro's letter. Anticipating his critics' response to his decision, Lincoln nevertheless concludes that "if it be a wrong one, I have then erred on the side of mercy."
In Across Five Aprils, Lincoln stands not only as Jethro's model of moral choice but also as Hunt's embodiment of ideal American character, i.e., conscience shaped by compassion. Lincoln's reply to Jethro is the climax of the novel. Her real story, the grown and maturation of a boy's conscience, is complete with Jethro's receipt of the President's letter.
From the Puritans to the present, the development of an ideal conscience has been the great theme or constant in American literature for children. I hope that Hunt's emphasis on a compassionate conscience is not soon forgotten; our children face a world where empathy and mercy are too often in short supply.
Source: Janice M. Alberghene, "Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils: Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide," in In Touchstones: Reflections on the Best in Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Perry Nodelman, Children's Literature Association, 1985, pp. 106-112.
Masha Kabakow Rudman
In the following excerpt, Rudman explains how Across Five Aprils differs from other novels' treatment of the Civil War.
Most of the books about the Civil War take a stance that the North was totally virtuous and that the South had no redeeming arguments. The war is usually described as a wrenching one for our country, but it is seldom explained that both sides had their villains as well as their heroes.
Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils—more about people than it is about war—concerns a family, the Creightons, living in southern Illinois at the time of the Civil War.
Two of the brothers—Bill, the kind one, and John, the unfriendly, somewhat distant one—argue about the war. Surprisingly enough, it is John who is for the Union, while Bill sides with the Southern cause. Here the "good guys" are not always on the "right" side.
For Jethro, another son, who is nine years old, war is an exciting idea. He believes that it will solve all problems and demonstrate the validity of the Union. He recognizes the thrill of battle and the satisfaction of overcoming an enemy. Bill is his favorite brother, and this causes him to be confused by what he had assumed were clear issues. Bill explains to Jethro that he, too, is confused. He hates slavery and the thought of the dissolution of the Union, but he cannot see how the war will settle the differences between two parts of the country. He cannot agree with the overwhelming prejudice against the entire southern part of the nation.
At last, Bill and his brother John, despite their love for each other, have a violent fistfight. Bill decides that he must leave to fight, not so much for the South, but against Northern arrogance and hypocrisy. He goes unhappily, but believing that he must, even though he knows that no side is in the right. His directions help the reader understand that what the history books depict as a clear-cut cause is not, after all, that simple.
Across Five Aprils won the Follett Award and was a Newbery honor book in 1965. Very well written, it uncovers many levels of emotion and behavior in wartime. The book helps students to compare different accounts of battles, causes of war, and issues in order to begin to construct a balanced, informed view.
Source: Masha Kabakow Rudman, "War and Peace," in Children's Literature: An Issues Approach. 2d ed., Longman, 1976, pp. 377-378.
Bettersworth, John K., Review of Across Five Aprils, in the New York Times Book Review, May 10, 1964, pp. 10, 12.
Helbig, Alethea K., "Irene Hunt," in Vol. 2 of American Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide from Colonial Times to the Present, edited by Linda Mainiero, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1980, pp. 354-55.
Hunt, Irene, Across Five Aprils, Berkeley Jam, 2002.
――――――, "Books and the Learning Process," in Horn Book, Vol. 43, August 1967, p. 424-29.
Rudman, Masha Kabakow, Children's Literature: An Issues Approach, 2d ed., Longman, 1976, 1984, pp. 369-70, 377-78.