Themes and Characters
Despite the small world in which Across Five Aprils is set, the novel features a large variety of characters. The main character, Jethro, first appears on a spring day at potato planting time. Hunt writes, "The world seemed a good place to him that morning," but it soon becomes apparent that Jethro is lighthearted in spite of conditions on the farm and in the world, not because of them. Jethro is the youngest child of Ellen and Matthew Creighton, and four of his brothers and sisters have died. Furthermore, no one knows what has happened to his oldest brother, who left for California many years before, never to be heard from again. The four who rest in Walnut Hill Graveyard exert a quiet influence on the living members of the family, reminders of life's brevity in a time when the death rate among young children is very high.
Although not quite ten years old at the story's beginning in 1861, Jethro knows of the furor over Abraham Lincoln's 1860 election to the presidency and "of tariffs, of slave states and free ones, of a violent old man named John Brown and. . .of states seceding from the Union." But Jethro is not so much interested in these issues as he is in the civil war that will inevitably erupt over the issues. On the evening of the day the novel opens, word reaches the farm that Fort Sumter has been fired upon.
During the next few months, changes begin to take place on the farm. Tom and Eb, Jethro's brother and cousin, leave to fight for the Union. In the fall, Jethro's brother Bill goes to fight for the Confederacy, bidding farewell only to Jethro. Letters from the soldiers begin arriving at the farm. One from Tom disputes the common conception that war is a glorious endeavor: "You tell Jeth that bein' a soljer ain't much." Jethro's brother John and his schoolmaster and future brother-in-law Shadrach Yale, whom Jethro misses greatly, are the next to join the military.
Warm and nurturing, Jethro's mother Ellen and his sister Jenny are among the strongest characters in the novel. Like most women of her social status during the mid-nineteenth century, Ellen has dedicated her entire life to her family and remains uneducated and illiterate. Although the complicated events of the day interest her, Ellen's understanding of them is limited. Sometimes she closes her eyes briefly, as if "to hide her exasperation from the world."
Jenny, on the other hand, embodies both her mother's strengths and those of the new generation. She has been educated, and at the age of fourteen is Irene Hunt in love with Shadrach. Mature for her years, she can run a household almost as well as her mother can. At sixteen, she journeys to Washington, under the protection of newspaper editor Ross Milton, to marry the wounded Shadrach. Her letters from Washington vividly describe the war's effects on the capital city.
A third female character,...
(The entire section is 721 words.)