In Irene Hunt's Across Five Aprils, does Bill fight for the South or for the North?
Early in Across Five Aprils, Irene Hunt's novel of a family struggling to survive the divisions within families as well as across the nation during the American Civil War, there are hints of a reticence regarding one of the novel’s main protagonist's brother. The first such hint that Bill Creighton harbors views at variance with those of the rest of his family occurs in the book’s opening chapter when oldest brother John states that he wants to “see them city newspapers”, suggesting his interest in the dominant story of the time, the war between North and South:
"I want to see them city newspapers––” he stopped as he saw Nancy’s anxious eyes on his face. He had tried to avoid talk of war as much as possible lately; the two younger boys were too eager for it, the womenfolk too ready to cry about it. And Bill, for the first time that John could remember, had reservations about a subject and seemed unwilling to discuss it with his brother. They ate in silence after that, but there was tension in the air.”
As readers of Hunt’s novel become aware, Bill, alone among his siblings and within the community in which the Creighton clan lives, has decided that his heart belongs with the Confederacy. In other words, Bill joins the Confederate Army of the South, while his community is aligned with the pro-Union forces of the North. For a novel told primarily from the vantage point of Jethro, the youngest of the Creighton brothers, Bill’s decision to join the Confederacy will be fraught with conflict. As Hunt’s narrator notes, “Jethro loved Bill far and away beyond his other brothers”, and for Bill to ally himself with the Confederacy will not only divide Bill from his family, but will create a nightmare for the family within the community. Bill’s decision, however, is not a reflection of his views on slavery, but rather on the issue of economic inequality between North and South. In one key passage, Bill states the following:
“Slavery, I hate. But it is with us, and them that should suffer fer the evil that they brought to our shores air long dead. What I want to answer in this year of 1861 is this, John: does the trouble over slavery come because men’s hearts is purer above the Mason-Dixon line? Or does slavery throw a shadder over greed and keep that greed from show’ up quite so bare and ugly?”
Bill is deeply conflicted about the direction in which the nation is headed and about the hypocrisies that he sees among Northerners critical of the culture of the South. It takes him time and much contemplation before he comes down on the side of the South, but he does, and it will cause his family no small amount of grief. For Bill, however, the policies pursued by rich Northern factory owners are no more morally righteous than is the South’s reliance on slavery as a source of cheap labor.