Across Five Aprils

by Irene Hunt

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Setting

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Across Five Aprils takes place on the farm of the Creighton family in rural southern Illinois during the American Civil War. Jethro, the youngest Creighton child and the main character, is not quite ten when the story begins. As war comes and Jethro's older brothers go away to become soldiers, Jethro assumes responsibility on the farm. His father suffers a severe heart attack, leaving Jethro to manage almost all of the heavy work. The war never reaches this quiet part of the country, but the Creightons' barn is burned because one of their sons has gone to fight for the Confederacy. Deserters from the Union Army hide near the farm, forcing Jethro to make a moral decision.

The action of the novel moves forward against a backdrop of changing seasons. The return of spring each April is particularly important to the changing season motif. Hunt recalls Walt Whit-man's great poem about Abraham Lincoln's April 1865 death, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," as she writes, "A south breeze brought the scent of lilacs and sweet fennel to his nostrils and set all the frosty-green leaves of a silver poplar tree trembling."

A realistic setting portrayed with affection, the Creighton farm is modeled on the farm where Hunt spent her early years. The nearby town of Newton is also realistically depicted. Although not essential to the plot, details about the Newton restaurant and other local establishments lend color and interest to the story.

Literary Qualities

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Across Five Aprils is a finely wrought piece of prose fiction. The plot parallels the course of the Civil War, beginning in April 1861, when Fort Sumter is attacked, and reaching to the "saddest and most cruel April of the five," when Lincoln is assassinated in 1865. Set on the Creighton farm and its close environs in southern Illinois, the action mostly consists of Jethro's moral and emotional development, leaving the distant battles to be described through the letters of absent characters.

Although the story is told in the third person, Hunt reveals all the action through Jethro's eyes, a technique known as limited omniscient narration. The narration reflects subtle changes that occur in Jethro's personality as he matures from a child to a thoughtful young man.

Hunt's outstanding use of language and symbolism merits attention. The author borrows some of Whitman's symbols from "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" and adds others, using the change of seasons as a barometer of her characters' feelings. A significant passage occurs at the end of the novel:

Daily the color of April grew brighter. The apple and peach orchards were in bloom again, and the redbud was almost ready to burst. The little leaves on the silver poplars quivered in green and silver lights with every passing breeze, and Jenny's favorite lilacs bloomed in great thick clusters, deep purple and as fragrant as any beautiful thing on earth.

Then suddenly, because there were no longer any eyes to perceive it, the color was gone, and the fifth April had become, like her four older sisters, a time of grief and desolation.

This fifth April is the time of Lincoln's assassination and of Tom Creighton's death at the Battle of Pittsburgh Landing. In both cases. Hunt emphasizes the discrepancy between the beauty of the season and the horror of the deed. As the bearer of the bad news about Tom, Dan Lawrence, relates, "I never seed a part of the country that looked purtier, with the peach tree in bloom and the air so soft and lazy....You wouldn't ha believed. . .that trouble was a-brewing fer all of us."

Across...

(This entire section contains 462 words.)

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Five Aprils has characteristics of an epistolary novel -- that is, a novel consisting exclusively of letters. Much of the story unfolds through letters written by people other than Jethro. This technique allows the reader to take a second look at the letter writer, who is first introduced through Jethro's eyes. Through the letters, the reader, like Jethro, receives personal accounts of the war's progress while maintaining a certain distance from the events. Thus Jenny's experiences in Washington, as described in her letters home, lack the intensity of Jethro's narrow escape from injury when he is attacked or of his encounter with Eb in the woods.

Social Sensitivity

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Hunt introduces many social concerns relevant to the American Civil War. She addresses the issues tactfully and without prejudice. At the beginning of the novel, young Jethro and his brothers eagerly await the war, anticipating "loud brass music and shining horses, men riding like kings." They understand that men will die, but imagine the casualties as "shadowy men from distant parts who would die for the pages of future history books." They soon realize that there is no glory in war, a point that Hunt stresses throughout the story. Death strikes at home when Tom dies in battle


. . . . Jethro had experienced all the heartaches of a family, a state, a nation, in the agony of a war . . .

The family also discovers that war brings out the worst in some people. When Bill joins the Confederate Army, neighboring Union sympathizers try to injure Jethro by frightening his horses as he rides to town. The Creightons refuse to condemn Bill for following his conscience, even though they disagree with him about the war. Some time later, ruffians ride up to the farmhouse to deliver a bundle of switches with a message attached: "There's trubel for fokes that stands up fer their reb lovin' sons." The "trubel" turns out to be the burning of the Creighton barn, a particularly cruel act in view of Matthew Creighton's ill health.

Hunt portrays the legitimate grievances of both the North and the South in an evenhanded manner. Wilse Graham, a relative from Kentucky visiting the Creightons, makes clear that slavery is not the war's only issue. High tariffs prevent the South from attaining the same level of prosperity enjoyed in the North. Wilse's defense of slavery, based on its existence from the beginning of history, is weak, and perceptive readers will easily recognize it as such. Even though Northerners embrace the morally correct stance on slavery, Wilse points out the hypocritical attitudes held by many of them. He asks how Northerners would react if every slave in the South were suddenly freed and went North: "Would they say 'we'll see that you get good-payin' work...that you're well housed and clothed...we want you to come to our churches and yore children...to our schools'?"

The problem of taking responsibility for one's own moral choices receives careful treatment. Jethro faces a moral dilemma when he discovers that his cousin Eb has deserted. Jethro encounters his cousin in the woods shortly after the federal registrars looking for Eb have bullied and threatened the Creighton family. Aware of his patriotic duty, Jethro also displays an uncommon understanding of the forces that have driven Eb to desert. He feels the need to confide in someone but feels he can trust no one. Jethro decides to write to President Lincoln, who, like Jethro, has plowed the fields of Illinois. Lincoln's reply is one of the high points of the book.

Above all, Across Five Aprils emphasizes the futility of war. The Civil War solves nothing that could not have been solved by peaceful means. It turns brother against brother and brings out the worst in human nature. Even the arrival of peace does not offer much hope. Ross Milton describes the physical and spiritual destruction, pointing out that the country must still contend with "the hate that burns in old scars, and the thirst for revenge that has distorted men."

For Further Reference

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Carlson, G. Robert. Books and the Teen-Age Reader. New York: Harper and Row, 1971. Valuable suggestions for teachers and parents. Brief mention of Across Five Aprils and other novels by Hunt.

Churchill, Winston. The Crisis. 1901. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1929. A romantic and action-filled novel about the Civil War by an American writer who was a best seller in his time. Intended for adults, but suitable for mature young people.

Crane, Stephen. The Red Badge of Courage. 1895. Reprint. New York: Bantam, 1986. For mature young people, this is a classic novel of a young Union soldier and his struggle with fear in battle.

Larrick, Nancy. A Parent's Guide to Children's Reading. 4th ed. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975. Originally published by the National Book Committee, this valuable guide makes brief mention of Across Five Aprils and contains an annotated list of Civil War stories arranged according to suitability for different age groups.

"Review." Best Sellers (June 15, 1964): 129. Emphasizes the skillful character development in Across Five Aprils.

Sheehan, Ethna. "Review." America (June 20, 1964): 850. Primarily a synopsis of the novel; some favorable comment.

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