Across Five Aprils
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Capriciousness of Public Opinion
Every time Hunt describes a newspaper article or the general opinion about a battle or decision, she shows us just how erratic and extreme the public opinion can be. The public opinion alternately reveres and devastates every general involved in the war effort. It also both criticizes and compliments the president. The public thinks that the North will win the war, then suddenly they believe the South will win it. The public opinion contributes to the general fatigue of the war, as everyone's intensities are drawn out by what they hear from others. Hunt also draws a distinction between peoples' real motivations and their motivations according to the newspapers. All of the public figures are human, but the way in which the public reacts to them almost suggests that they are not.
The Power of the Presidency
Jethro and Ross Milton, among others, secure their faith ultimately in the president. The Northern army swaps generals, the war ebbs and flows, the citizens fall victim to the back and forth of gossip and public opinion, but the one constant is Abraham Lincoln. His constancy is of great personal significance to Jethro when they exchange letters, and Lincoln reveals the same issue that plagued Jethro troubled him. Lincoln commends Jethro on seeking out what was right and reminds Jethro that even in the midst of war, people must continue to value rightness as most important. Lincoln, indirectly, rescues Eb. He provides a way for Southern deserters to rejoin the Union without penalty. He does not want to enter into war but knows he must and remains steadfast in his decision. When everyone else falters with worry and when everyone doubts the war effort and that any good can come of it, there is still the president, firm and proud.
The Importance of Redemption and Forgiveness
Grudges are especially dangerous during wartime. Hatred and anger seem to prevail, and Hunt emphasizes the Creightons' ability to forgive. Matt persuades the town not to hurt or kill Travis Burdow, who killed his own daughter. The Creightons forgive Mr. Burdow, who redeems himself by helping Jethro and by sending materials to rebuild the barn. John forgives Bill and talks to him as a brother while they are on different sides of the war. The townspeople support the Creightons against the few who try and punish them for Bill's actions. In this book, forgiveness is crucial in cases where people are motivated by good. The ability to redeem and forgive, especially during a time when everyone must exist among hatred and anger, helps the Creightons manage through the five years of the war.
Hunt makes sure that most actions and reactions in Across Five Aprils have repercussions. There is a cyclical nature to many of the events and relationships. For example, Matthew Creighton indirectly saves the life of his daughter's killer, and then, in an interesting reversal, the killer's father, Mr. Burdow, saves Creighton's child. Bill joins the Southern army but has a chance to tell John that he did not fire the bullet that killed Eb. Jethro's troubling over Eb resolves itself in a personal letter from the president, revealing that Lincoln and Jethro are consumed by the same thoughts. Jethro is rewarded for his work at home by moving in with Jenny and Shadrach to pursue his studies. Jethro and Ross Milton eat at the same restaurant both at the beginning and at the end of the war, bringing the two full circle despite the war.
Both Sides of the Story
Hunt is consistently very fair in portraying both sides of the war. Often, the arguments that characters have do an accurate job of exploring both sides in a compelling fashion. Having one character so torn that he fights for the South shows how complicated this war was and that there is no clear right and no clear wrong. Shadrach and Jethro defend Bill's actions, saying that the most important thing is that he stood up for what he believed.
Growing Old Before One's Time
Jethro's loss of innocence does not come from typical aging, but rather from a set of circumstances that force him to feel and act much older than he actually is. Growing up during a war casts a melancholy feeling over most days. Beyond that, all of Jethro's brothers as well as his teacher are gone, fighting. Jethro worries for their lives and has to take over the responsibilities they left behind. Jethro's father has a heart attack, which leaves him, in the absence of his older brothers, as the man of the house. Jethro's brother deserts the war and comes to him for help. Those who are angry with Bill's decision to fight for the South threaten Jethro's family. And, to top it all off, Jethro suffers the lost of both a public and personal hero when Lincoln dies. Unlike some kids, Jethro cannot allow these problems to go over his head. Rather, he is forced to reckon with them directly, and the impact is that suddenly, Jethro's boyishness and innocence is lost.
"Not a Perfect Pearl"
Instead of ending the book at the end of the war, Hunt makes a point to inform the reader that it is not really over just because the fighting has stopped. As Ross Milton points out, simply because guns have stopped firing does not mean that things go back to normal or that the complicated life of wartime is over. Hunt hints at the issue of rebuilding and reconstruction and suggests that the country has a lot of healing and moving forward left to do before the country really recovers. To acknowledge this difficult transition is to provide a realistic end to this text and suggest that there are no easy answers to difficult problems.
The barn is a symbol of two things: of the judgmental and spiteful nature of some of the men in the county and of the ability to rebuild. Men who want to punish the Creightons for Bill's involvement with the "rebs" burn down the barn as a symbol of their hatred. They believe that Bill and the Creightons betrayed the Union, so they in turn take it upon themselves to betray the Creightons. The Creightons, with the help of friends and neighbors, rebuild the barn, demonstrating resilience and determination. While it is not the same, much as life after the war is not the same as life before it, they do the best they can.
The Bible Ledger
The Creightons keep a Bible with a ledger inside the cover. On it they record births, deaths, and marriages. The Bible ledger is an abbreviated family history, succinctly cataloging the greatest joys and the greatest sorrows a family endures. Jethro can see not only the record of his own birth, but the record of his own life—three of his siblings died in the same summer to a disease, but he and Jenny managed to survive. The ledger represents luck, fate, and divine intervention, as well as the most basic facts of life and death.
Drinking coffee symbolizes maturity. In the beginning of the book, Jethro never drinks coffee. The first time he has some is before his trip into Newton—a trip that reflects his status as an adult. Drinking coffee represents the passing from boy to man. Coffee is bittersweet, as well. Ellen gets violently ill when she does not have her coffee. It is an expensive, but necessary, habit. Jethro initially looks forward to being able to drink coffee, but the effects it has on his mother make it seem more negative. Coffee is a symbol of the pains of growing older and of the often bittersweet aspects of aging.
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