Reviewed by Ed Lengel
Division exacts a heavy toll on society. That has certainly been the case in the twenty-first century, when political hatreds have fostered social dysfunction unseen at least since the 1960s, leading to outright physical violence and dislocation. As always in such situations—when extremists hold the upper hand, making war on moderation and demanding that everyone choose sides—it is the innocent that suffer the most. The warlike, for the most part, have chosen the path of violence after deciding that they have less to lose than they do to gain. Tragically, though, their choice also forces those who have little to gain and much to lose along the same path—for example, children, the elderly, and especially families—to their everlasting sorrow.
Across Five Aprils traces the suffering that another era of violence—the American Civil War—inflicted on one southern Illinois farming family, the Creighton. As the story opens in 1861, parents Matthew and Ellen Creighton are just putting their lives together in the wake of an epidemic that has claimed three of their children, and a tragic accident that has taken another. Their remaining sons and daughters, including the novel’s chief protagonist, nine-year-old Jethro, must exert all of their efforts in cooperating to help the family survive.
The fierce passions induced by the Civil War upset this delicate dynamic, dividing brother against brother, and sending one to fight for the South while the others who are of age to join the Union Army. In a manner that is likely incomprehensible and even offensive to many readers today, author Irene Hunt suggests that intelligent and well-meaning individuals, in the context of their times, might have disagreed about which side was right and which was wrong in the conflict between the Federal and Confederate governments. What might at other times have provoked at worst an uncomfortable dinner-table debate, carves permanent divisions in 1861 that shatter the Creighton family forever.
Jethro struggles to navigate this complex environment as, for example, his favorite brother Bill goes off to join the Confederate Army, while his mentor, schoolteacher Shadrach Yale, joins the Union forces. Tragically, although the Creightons as a whole favor the Union and one of Jethro’s brothers is killed in action wearing a blue uniform at the Battle of Shiloh, local radicals demand that the family go one step farther and publicly denounce Bill. When the Creightons refuse to do so out of love for their wayward son, they too are labeled traitors and targeted for violence.
While the Civil War—today– is sometimes taught as a crusade of absolute right versus unmitigated wrong, Hunt finds nothing redeeming in a struggle that is now recognized to have cost the lives of about 750,000 Americans and caused unfathomable suffering. Although some of those who fomented the violence initially become disillusioned in time—including Jethro’s adopted brother Eb, who shows up on his doorstep in 1863 as a starving deserter—and others lose their lives, many carry on the legacy of bitterness and hatred even after the battles have ended. And once again, the innocent are carried along in the wake of their path of violence.
First published during the centennial of the Civil War in 1964 and a Newbery Award winner, Across Five Aprils hasn’t aged particularly well. The latter half of the book is weak on character development as Jethro and his family seem to spend much of their time reviewing newspaper headlines and tracking the path of the various armies across the country. At its best, however, the novel presents an intriguing and all-too relevant of the impact of violent hatred and intolerance on everyday people.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.