55 pages • 1 hour readIrene Hunt
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Across Five Aprils (1964) is a young adult (YA) historical novel written by the American children’s book author Irene Hunt. A coming-of-age story, the novel follows young Jethro Creighton through four years of his life from the beginning to the end of the American Civil War. Irene Hunt based the novel largely on the experiences of her own grandfather who, like Jethro, was only nine years old when the Civil War began.
The book was Hunt’s first novel; it was nominated for the Newbery Medal award for children’s literature in 1965 and won the Lewis Carroll Shelf Award in 1966. Hunt, who wrote a number of children’s historical novels, was nominated for the international Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1974. The book was an early entry in the category of young adult fiction, which saw a surge in popularity in the 1960s. It was adapted to film in 1990.
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This study guide refers to the 1986 Berkley edition of the book.
Content Warning: This guide contains discussions of slavery and violence that are present in the source text.
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In April of 1861, nine-year-old Jethro Creighton and his mother Ellen are out in the fields of their farm, planting potatoes. Unbeknownst to them, the American Civil War has already begun. Jethro doesn’t understand his mother’s anxiety about the current political state of the country since he doesn’t grasp the reality of war.
Jethro is the youngest of the Creighton family’s 12 children; four have already died when the story begins while the eldest three have moved far away. The first chapter introduces the other members of the Creighton family: Jethro’s parents, Matthew and Ellen; his older brothers John, Bill, and Tom; his sister, Jenny; his cousin Eb; John’s wife, Nancy, with their two young boys; and the young schoolteacher Shadrach “Shad” Yale, who is considered one of the family. Shad and Jenny want to get married, but Matthew discourages them because of Jenny’s young age. The Creightons’ older daughter, Mary, was killed a few years ago in a carriage accident caused by a young man named Travis Burdow, and since then the Creightons and the Burdows have been on unfriendly terms.
The family members have conflicting feelings about the impending war: Jethro’s parents and older brothers are worried while Tom and Eb fantasize about war, imagining that the North will easily defeat the South in only a week. John and Bill, previously very close, grow distant due to their differing viewpoints on the war. When Ellen’s nephew Wilse Graham visits from Kentucky and argues passionately for the South, the tensions among the family are only further exacerbated.
Tom and Eb enlist in the Union army immediately while John and Shad plan to enlist later. Already disillusioned with his war fantasies, Tom writes to the family about an incident in which several men in his regiment froze to death. Before Shad leaves to enlist, Jethro spends a memorable night with him in his small apartment, during which Shad explains some of the battles and instructs Jethro to continue reading the newspapers with Jenny while he’s gone. One night, Jethro’s brother Bill confides in him that he has moral qualms about both sides of the war and doesn’t feel that he can fight for the North’s cause. A few days later, Bill and John get into a fight over the issue, and Bill tells Jethro that he’s decided to run away. Although he doesn’t say for certain that he’s going to join the Confederate army, he makes it clear that he favors their side. Bill’s departure breaks the rest of the family’s hearts, and later causes tension between the Creightons and other members of the community.
Jethro is forced to take on more adult responsibilities now that the older men are all gone. One day, he rides into the town of Newton for supplies and runs into a drunken rabble-rouser named Guy Wortman, who accuses the Creightons of being Southern sympathizers because of their refusal to disown Bill. The newspaper editor, Ross Milton, defends Jethro and becomes his friend.
On his drive home that night, Jethro runs into Dave Burdow, the father of Travis Burdow, who insists on riding with him. Although Jethro is terrified because of his family’s bad history with the Burdows, Dave reassures him that he is riding with him to protect him. Further down the road, Guy Wortman attempts to scare Jethro’s horses and cause an accident, but Burdow helps Jethro make it home safely. This incident begins to mend the rift between the two families and makes the entire community more accepting of the Burdows.
The next day, Matthew Creighton has a sudden heart attack. Although he survives, he is unable to complete the grueling work necessary to maintain the farm. The responsibility falls on Jethro and Jenny, and several of their neighbors also come by to help when they can. Despite this show of support, the Creightons are harassed by Wortman and his friends, who burn down their barn and taint their well. This disaster, and the news of Tom’s death shortly afterward, drive home the dark realities of the war. However, in the midst of this dark time, the Creightons’ friends and neighbors all work together to help them rebuild.
A few years into the war, the community is overrun by a number of soldiers who have deserted from the army. The deserters are dangerous, and one local draft-dodger gets murdered. One day, a group of Federal Registrars shows up at the Creightons’ door and informs them that their cousin Eb Carron has deserted; the men insist on searching the Creightons’ home, suspecting the family of hiding Eb. A few days later, while Jethro is out tilling the fields alone, he discovers Eb hiding in some trees. Eb is starving and sick, and he admits that he only came back home because he didn’t know what else to do. Jethro brings him some food in secret but doesn’t tell anyone else about Eb’s presence. Conflicted about what to do, Jethro finally decides to write a letter to President Abraham Lincoln about the situation. To everyone’s shock, the president writes back, informing him that he plans to offer amnesty to all deserters. He admits that he will get criticism for this decision, but he hopes to err on the side of mercy, and he prays that both he and Jethro will continue to persevere in their search for what is right.
As the war finally draws toward its conclusion, the family increasingly fears for John and Shad’s lives. Both John and Shad write the family many letters detailing their harrowing experiences. During the Battle of Gettysburg, Shad is wounded and taken to a hospital in Washington, DC. Ross Milton offers to escort Jenny to the hospital, hoping that her presence may help save Shad’s life. Shad does indeed begin to recover after being reunited with Jenny, and the two of them are soon married. Meanwhile, John writes to the family that he happened to run into Bill, who had been taken prisoner as a Confederate soldier. The two brothers reconcile, but the news is bittersweet, as the family all know it’s unlikely that Bill will be able to come home after the war is over.
At last, after General Sherman’s destructive march through Georgia, the Civil War comes to an end in 1865. The Creightons and their neighbors celebrate the victory, but their joy is shattered by President Lincoln’s assassination. In the end, Shad and Jenny come home, and Shad invites Jethro to come live with them and study at university. Although the future is still uncertain, Jethro takes hope and comfort from his family.
By Irene Hunt