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.
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 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...
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