The five Aprils of the story mark significant events of the Civil War, such as the firing on Fort Sumter in 1861 and President Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, both of which occurred in April. The month is also important in the farming lifecycle as the coming of spring in the Great Plains where the book is set. Jethro, the protagonist, is only 9 when the story begins. As he is too young to go and fight, he must hold down the farm with his father, laid permanently low by a heart attack.
As his brothers and neighbors join up, he first holds a romantic notion, associated with the brass band music and uniforms. Soon he realizes the deep divisions as one brother joins the Confederacy. Still, he assumes that Tom will return triumphant.
Thus, an important change he undergoes is facing the reality of Tom’s death in yet another April. Although other siblings have died, Tom’s sacrifice through violence makes a stronger impression. As a survivor, Jethro shoulders additional responsibilities beyond his years.
Jethro also grows and matures through an ethical dilemma. His cousin, Eb, has decided to desert and is hiding out nearby. Should he shield him or turn him in? Realizing that some decisions are too hard to make alone, he confides in the president by writing him a letter, thus behaving as a citizen, not just a resident of his country.