The Creightons’ barn develops as a symbol throughout the novel. At the beginning, it is a symbol of all that the Creighton family has built up over the years. It contains the ‘fruit’ (grain, hay) and the tools (farm equipment) of their labor. When Guy Wortman and his friends set it on fire because they are angry at Bill Creighton’s perceived treachery in fighting for the South, it becomes a symbol of their destructive hatred. Then, Dave Burdow sends timber from his land to rebuild the barn, and Matt’s neighbors rally round to raise the new barn. They also fill it with supplies to replace those that were destroyed in the fire. Thus the new barn becomes symbolic of the redeeming power of forgiveness, reconciliation, love for one’s fellow man, and kindness.
Hunt reproduces the southern Illinois (influenced by its geographical closeness to the South) dialect in the speech of the characters. Jethro’s own language undergoes a transformation throughout the novel, of which he is very conscious. At the novel’s beginning, he talks in the same rural dialect as the rest of his family: for example, “I was scairt. … If I’d bin awake, it wouldn’t ha’ seemed so bad to think about. But sleepin’ – I was scairt” (Chapter 3, p. 40). “Scairt” means “scared” or frightened. Jethro often pronounces “are” as “air,” as in, “Air yore thoughts about the war, Bill?” (Chapter 3, p. 41).
Both during the period when the novel was set (1861–1865) and at the time of its publication (1964) and beyond, regional dialects were widely considered a sign of social inferiority. Children who had ambition frequently lost their accents early in life or developed two accents: one for use with the family at home, and the other for the wider world. Jethro is no exception. He wants to study and better himself, and so he tells Ross Milton, “I’d like to talk nice – the way you and him [Shadrach] do.” Ross lends him a book on correct English usage, which Jethro studies assiduously. He makes good use of it at least twice: once in Chapter 9, when he writes to the President about his policy on deserters, keeping the book on hand for guidance; and again in Chapter 10, when he writes a letter to Jenny which she treasures for the rest of her life. Though the reader is not told the exact contents of Jethro’s letter to the President, the letter to Jenny is reproduced, and it is written in standard English, with no trace of dialect. The implication is that Jethro is well placed for raising his social and economic status in life.