Changing family relationships
While Across Five Aprils is a Civil War novel, the focus is not so much on the war as on the family relationships of the Creighton family. The war is seen through the prism of this family. The war is portrayed as a disruptive influence that subverts normal and conventional family relationships.
The first family relationship that changes is that of Jethro with the rest of his family. Because all the men of the family go off to war, much of the responsibility for the farm and the family paradoxically falls on the youngest member, Jethro. A paradox is a statement or proposition that seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth. It seems absurd that a nine- or ten-year-old boy should shoulder such heavy responsibility, but Jethro is forced to grow up prematurely quickly and becomes a wise, if somber, head of the family.
Jethro’s first adult responsibility comes when he has to drive into Newton to do chores. This seemingly routine task takes on a dark aspect when his life is threatened by the vengeful Guy Wortman. Suddenly, Jethro has to find the resources necessary to preserve his life. Fortunately, he is rescued by Dave Burdow. This in itself is a subversion of expected relationships, as the Burdow family is seen by the Creightons’ neighbors as the enemy of the Creightons. By force of the odd circumstances brought about by the war, Jethro’s enemy has been revealed as his friend.
As Jethro grows up fast, so his father reverts into a more childlike role after his heart attack, which in turn was likely brought on the stress of the war. He cries and has to be shielded from unpleasant truths about the war by Jethro.
Similarly, the war subverts the expected outcome of the romantic relationship of the novel, between Jenny and Shadrach. Like any other couple in love, the two want to be together. But they face two obstacles. The first obstacle, in place before the outbreak of the war, is opposition from Matt, who believes his daughter to be too young to marry. He is taking the conventional view that Jenny should reach a certain age threshold before she can marry. The second obstacle is the war. This obstacle instantly makes Matt’s conventional objection appear trivial and inadequate. Jenny and Shadrach reasonably fear that when Shadrach goes off to fight, they will never see each other again. When Shadrach is critically wounded, Matt realizes that it is time to discard convention and agrees to allow the pair to marry.
Across Five Aprils fits into the literary category known as the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel. The bildungsroman traces the maturation of a protagonist, usually a young person, through a series of trials and tribulations. In this case, the protagonist is Jethro, who is forced to grow up prematurely by the outbreak of the war. Jethro changes significantly throughout the novel. At the beginning, for example, Jethro is influenced by the naïve views of Tom and Eb about war: “War meant loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores in Newton” (Chapter 1, p. 15). He is as impatient with President Lincoln’s reluctance to go to war as he is with his father’s refusal to take revenge on the Burdow family for Mary’s death. By the novel’s end, however, Jethro comes to appreciate that war is messy and destructive, that neither side is entirely in the right, and that there is no ideal outcome. He also realizes the value of his father’s merciful attitude to the Burdows, since he comes to owe his life to Dave Burdow’s intervention. Jethro has grown from an innocent child to a thoughtful and wise young man.
The importance of kindness and mercy
Throughout the novel, two conflicting approaches to life are compared and contrasted. The first approach involves venting anger, taking revenge, and punishing those perceived to have caused offense. The second approach involves pausing and reflecting before taking action and inclining to kindness and mercy, even towards those who have offended and hurt the person of group of people in question.
The first approach is exemplified by Tom and Eb at the beginning of the novel in their enthusiasm for war. It is no accident that Tom is the only Creighton son to be killed in the war and Eb deserts because he cannot stand the misery of the battlefield. These events may be interpreted as a harsh form of poetic justice (an ideal distribution of rewards and punishments that is common in works of literature) or a moral lesson against embracing violence.
This approach is also taken by Guy Wortman and his friends, when they want to punish Jethro for his brother’s defection to the South. It was also the approach recommended by Matt Creighton’s neighbors after Travis Burdow’s killing of Mary: they intended to send a lynch mob for Travis. It is easy to see how, if the neighbors had got their way, a vendetta would have sprung up between the Burdows and Creightons. The factor that prevents this vicious cycle from taking hold is Matt Creightons’ decision not to take revenge but to show mercy to the Burdow family. The result is the opposite to a vicious cycle: it is a virtuous cycle. Matt’s merciful attitude toward Travis Burdow made Dave Burdow into an advocate for the Creightons. Thus, when Jethro’s life is threatened by Wortman, Dave Burdow steps in to prevent harm coming to him. Also, when Wortman and his friends burn down the Creightons’ barn, Dave Burdow sends wood from his land to rebuild it. Matt Creighton’s merciful act rebounds positively on his family.
Matt’s tendency toward kindness and mercy is reflected in President Lincoln’s position on the war. He is reluctant to declare war on the South and, when the South seems certain to be defeated, he implements policies of mercy and amnesty for those individuals, at the price of condemnation from his political critics. The reader is left in no doubt that the way of mercy will ensure the best possible outcome from the necessarily destructive process of war. Lincoln is portrayed as a wise man whose views coincide with the mature Jethro’s, and even with God’s: Ellen says of his Gettysburg address: “It has the ring of the Scriptures about it, Jeth” (Chapter 11, p. 164). However, Lincoln’s stance is not universally reflected by the Union armies. Sherman’s army raids and loots the South, and a prophetic Creighton neighbor comments: “A war ain’t won that leaves scars like this on folks who be our brothers” (Chapter 12, p. 175).
The novel’s final condemnation of the way of violence comes in the assassination of the President after he has won the popular vote. Jethro is grief-stricken by the loss of a man whom he has come to see as a friend, and the sense of tragic waste is palpable.
Changing family relationships