Friday, April 15, 2011
CIVIL WAR READALONG: Across Five Aprils
“Across Five Aprils” is a young adult novel by Irene Hunt. It won the Newbery Medal. It was published in 1964. It is set on a farm in southern Illinois during the Civil War. The main character is Jethro who is nine at the time of the first April. Hunt was inspired by stories told by her grandfather Jethro Creighton. As a result of the war, he sees his family broken up as his brothers go off to war.
The Creighton family is living a typical life in 1861. But the war clouds are on the horizon. At a family meal, they debate the causes. Cousin Wilse Graham stirs things up by spouting the Southern point of view. The industrial North should leave the South alone. They are trying to keep us down. Slavery has always existed. Our slaves are better off than Northern factory workers. He manages to hit all the talking points. The Creighton view is simple – it is wrong to own another human being. This passage foreshadows the tutorial nature of the book. Hunt juggles the family drama with frequent references to events in the war.
Jethro has the wide-eyed enthusiasm for the war that a nine year old would have. “War meant loud brass music and shiny horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores of Newton; it meant men riding like kings, looking neither right nor left, while lesser men in perfect lines strode along with guns across their shoulders, their heads held high like horses with short reins.” He learns the realities of war over the next four years, but in a Disney sort of way.
Jethro’s older brothers go off to war with his favorite (Bill) joining the Rebels. This plot development makes little sense. Bill’s reasoning that parrots cousin Wilse is unconvincing. Hunt obviously wants to balance the sides a bit. This also allows for some conflict with yahoos who torment the family because of Bill’s status. Unfortunately, Bill disappears for much of the remainder of the book so we do not get the Southern military perspective.
Since the book stays with Jethro, there is no combat to liven things up. There is a subplot involving a hothead who resents Bill’s side-switching. Jethro is saved by an enemy of the family in an act of redemption. Pretty lame. When Mr. Creighton is disabled by a heart attack, Jethro is forced to become the man of the family. “Now he was to know labor from dawn to sunset; he was to learn what it meant to scan the skies for rain while corn burned in the fields, or to see a heavy rainstorm lash grain from full, strong wheat stalks, or to know that hay, desperately needed for winter feeding, lay rotting in a wet quagmire of a field.”
Jethro keeps track of the war through newspapers and letters home from his brother John and his eventual brother-in-law Shad. Unfortunately, the letters are not particularly enlightening about soldier life. This is a missed opportunity by Hunt. We learn a lot about farm-boy life through Jethro, but little about what his brothers are going through. For example, Shad writes from the Antietam battlefield, but we learn nothing about the battle or his role in it. He does manage to opine on Gen. McClellan (a recurring subject in the book).
An interesting subplot is Jethro’s encounter with his cousin Eb who has deserted and regrets it. Jethro writes to Lincoln pleading Eb’s case and naturally Lincoln responds that he has initiated a policy where deserters can turn themselves in and return to their units. At least Hunt does not have Jethro initiating the policy. This does conform with Lincoln’s personality and position on this issue.
There is romance as Shad is wounded at Gettysburg and Jethro’s sister Jenny goes to nurse him and they marry. John writes a descriptive letter about the Battle of Missionary Ridge which stands out in the book. For the most part, Hunt does a good job keeping us posted on the military events, but seldom delves deeper than the big picture. Surprisingly, the book takes a turn at this stage toward more coverage of the war and less of the home front. It appears to be a rush to the finish line. We learn that Bill is a prisoner of war. Jethro is crushed to learn of the death of Lincoln. There is the obligatory happy ending with the return of the newlyweds in the fifth April.
“Across Five Aprils” is an acclaimed young adult novel. It appears to be overrated, however. This might be due to its age. I would imagine the same plot today would be a bit more realistic in its handling of the cruel realities of war. As an educational experience, it is commendable. A young adult would learn the basics of the military events. Heck, with this generation, it is a plus that they would learn which side won the war. Hunt drops a lot of names of battles. (You might want to follow on a map). You also learn a lot about the attitudes of the people of southern Illinois toward McClellan, Grant, and Lincoln. It is excellent in its coverage of farm life, specifically through the eyes of a boy. In conclusion, I would not recommend it to any adults, especially those who already have a knowledge of the Civil War. However, it is a good, safe story for teenagers.