Across Five Aprils
That summer, largely to distract themselves from the burgeoning war, people in southern Illinois convene on the weekends for parties and balls. They hear about the battle of Bull Run, and everyone realizes this will be a longer, harder battle than they thought: "no more confident statements of ending the whole affair in one decisive swoop." Tom and Eb want to join the war effort as soon as possible, and John and Shadrach plan to join in mid-winter.
Tom and Eb leave in late summer, amid news of more northern defeats, specifically one in Missouri. A Union commander and many soldiers from Illinois died there. Jethro absorbs all this information, particularly news of a brilliant Union general named McClellan. After Tom and Eb leave, Jethro sleeps in the same room as Bill and often wakes up having nightmares. One night Bill admits that his "'thinkin' is all of a tangle . '" and that he cannot sleep. Bill says that no one will really win this war and that it shouldn't have started in the first place. He says that he hates slavery but also hates "laws passed by Congress that favor one part of a country and hurts the other."
One day, while appreciating the trees and beauty of a nearby hilltop, Jethro finds Bill, beaten and bruised. Bill explains that he and John got into a big fight. Bill says that the two have had "hard feelings" for weeks and that he is going to fight, but not "fer arrogance and big money aginst the southern farmer." Bill says his heart is not in it, but he must fight and fight for the South.
Chapter 4 jumps ahead to February of 1862. The North has just won its first battle in Fort Henry, and the people learn of and begin to worship Ulysses S. Grant. A couple weeks later Grant takes another fort. Jenny asks if the war is almost over, and Matt speculates that McClellan and his army are floundering. The family constantly worries about Tom and Eb, knowing that the battles are becoming more and more fierce. The Creightons' neighbor, Ed Turner, finally brings them a letter from Tom. In it, Tom says that he and Eb are fine and describes some of the fighting and tells them how many of the soldiers froze to death after tossing away their blankets for easier travel. Ellen grows stiff and silent upon reading the account.
That afternoon Ellen tells Jethro that he should go visit with Shadrach and spend the night before Shadrach leaves for the service. She also wants Shadrach to read Tom's letter. Jethro and Jenny talk later, and Jenny bemoans the fact that Matt will not let her marry Shadrach before he leaves. Jethro makes the frigid walk to Shadrach's, and they warm up dinner and talk. Shadrach echoes Jenny's sentiments about wanting to get married and admits that he is worried that after he leaves he will not have the chance to marry her.
Shadrach and Jethro begin talking about the war, and Jethro suggests that it is almost over. Shadrach says that the two recent victories do not mean that the end is near—quite the opposite. Shadrach reads Tom's letter. Shadrach explains the logic behind the two last targets, and Grant's strategy at cutting off supplies. They talk about how Lincoln's son died only a few days earlier, and Jethro feels sorry for him. Talking about Lincoln's apparent indecision in the war leads to a conversation about Bill, and Jethro asks Shadrach if Bill was wrong. Shadrach defends Bill, saying he is just after the truth and that what he did took a lot of courage.
The two prepare dinner and lighten the mood. Shadrach says that if he comes back from the war, he and Jenny will marry and Jethro will live with them and pursue his studies. Shadrach says he will leave Jethro all his books, and he asks Jethro to take care of Jenny for him. They sing after dinner, and soon Jethro curls up near the fire.
This book succeeds in doing what a genre of war movies has attempted to do—it strives to make war look anything but glamorous. This time, we see the realization set in through a child, someone for whom war is incomprehensible to some extent. Many of the other people in his family and in the town are like Jethro—after news of the first couple Union victories, they all wait to hear that the war is over. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the intricacies of war and of peoples' generally simple-minded beliefs that war is like a game of chess—a bit of strategizing, some ups and downs, and then a winner. When Shadrach tells Jethro that the northern victories, while worthy of celebration, will only entangle them further in what appears to be a worsening war, Jethro understands that there is much he does not know about the war effort. Shadrach tries to explain strategy to Jethro, and Jethro finally begins to realize just how high the stakes are.
The fact that Jethro, and most people, do not understand the ins and outs of war make the war generals all the more important. In these chapters, Hunt begins to talk about McClellan and Grant and illustrates how much hope the people place on these leaders. When Grant's army wins two battles, Grant is revered as a god. Public opinion is volatile and changeable and sways back and forth dramatically throughout the course of the book.
The war becomes more complex for Jethro personally when he learns that his favorite brother, Bill, is going to fight for the rebels. Bill's toiling with the issues is much like that of Abraham Lincoln's—he does not think there is a good choice or a right one but makes his choice because he has to do something. The choice causes a chasm between Bill and his brother John, and it is hard to know whom to support in the war. Jethro wants the Union side to win the war, and he wants his two brothers involved on that side to be safe, but on the other hand he cannot wish that the North lay waste to the South, out of fear for Bill.
Jethro watches three brothers leave for the war and anticipates another's departure, along with Shadrach. All in all, five people dear to him and his family are involved in the fighting. This plunges Jethro's once fairly simple life into a complicated abyss, leaving him struggling to understand the layers of this war and its implications on this country and his family.
As Jethro spends the evening with Shadrach, he realizes that he may never see his teacher again. When Bill leaves, Jethro thinks "[h]e had heard this mother say that if you watch a loved one as he leaves you for a long journey, it's like as not to be the last look at him that you'll ever have." Shadrach talks about marrying Jenny and having Jethro live with them, but that possibility sounds like one from an alternate universe. First, Shadrach has to live through the war, and that chance is remote enough that Jethro cannot allow himself to linger on it. Regardless of what happens, Jethro, his family, and the rest of the country realize that nothing will ever be the same again.
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