When the war begins, Jethro is quite young. He even thinks the war is kind of neat, imagining horses, trumpets, and polished brass buttons. Throughout the book he not only loses that glamorous image, but he comes to understand that the war is an unrelenting force that propels him and everyone else forward without mercy. Jethro is hurled from boyhood into manhood, as he assumes responsibilities left after his father has a heart attack. He is the only boy in the family not fighting in the war, and thus he is somewhat of an outsider. While he does not have to experience the death and destruction of war directly, what he does experience—the news of his family members' experience of war—is more out of his control and sometimes harder to handle. He must wait for letters from his family to know if they are dead or alive, and he must sit back and watch the deteriorating effects of the war on people he loves. He worries about the outcome of the war and consumes himself with trying to understand exactly what is happening and why.
The war strips away Jethro's identity. Tangibly, it takes away his brothers, his teachers, and his ability to enjoy the freedom of boyhood. Jethro must deal with this set of alien circumstances while at the same time growing up. Jethro loses some of the shine in his eyes and is less precocious and talkative at the end of the text, but he gains valuable knowledge and experience, and, at the end of the book, he returns to his studies.
Bill is only a physical presence in the beginning of the book, but his decision to fight for the south has a presence of its own throughout the text. Bill simply wants to do the right thing, and he does not know what that is. Much like President Lincoln, he thinks that the two choices before him are both wrong—the only question is which is the lesser of two evils. His decision to fight for the South is brave, because it combines the courage of fighting with the fortitude of defying expectations and risking estrangement from friends, family, and the community-at-large. Shadrach tells Jethro that even though Bill is on the other side, he should be proud of Bill's bravery and steadfast attempt to do what is right.
Jenny is Jethro's only constant companion during the war. She helps Jethro in the fields, and they talk about the war. They both understand each other's thoughts and feelings, since they are very similar. Their lives are intertwined in the concern and emotions felt over the same people in the war. Jenny's love for Shadrach flourishes during the war, compounded by her worry for his life. Jethro is jealous of her ties to his old teacher but ultimately is happy for their union. Jenny is steadfast and strong, especially when learning that Shadrach is critically injured. She goes to him and marries him, then nurses him back to health. She deals with the war on her own terms too, and in many ways the war makes a woman out of her just as it makes a man out of Jethro.
In many ways, Milton begins where Shadrach leaves off in the education of Shadrach. Both men take an interest in Jethro because they see the enormous potential in him, and they want to help bring it to fruition. Milton stands up for Jethro when men in the store in Newton become angry about Bill's decision to fight for the South. Milton happily extends generosity to Jethro, perhaps treating him as if he were a son. Milton encourages Jethro to read the papers and to read a book on proper speech that Milton wrote. When something happens in the war that is either difficult to accept or difficult to interpret, Milton and Jethro talk about it. The prophetic statement, "peace will not be a perfect pearl," is one of Milton's most poignant truisms. Milton's love for Jethro extends to the Creightons as a family, as Milton persuades Matt to let him accompany Jenny to Washington D.C.
Although Jethro never interfaces with Lincoln except via a single letter, Lincoln's presence throughout the text is crucial. Lincoln represents stability and guidance in a time when it seems as if everyone and everything is falling apart. Lincoln stands by his decision to enter the war, although he did not see it as a good option, only the least bad one. The advice Lincoln gives Jethro and the decisions Lincoln makes—particularly in regards to the treatment of deserters and Southerners—exemplifies mercy and demonstrates Lincoln's constant pursuit of what is right.
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