Across Five Aprils: Essay Q&A
1. Across Five Aprils shows the cyclical nature of time. Discuss.
There are two events in the novel that, together, show the cyclical nature of time. The first one happens before the novel opens: it is the killing of Mary Creighton as a result of the drunken antics of Travis Burdow. Mary is being driven home from a dance by an admirer. Burdow chases their wagon and fires his pistol near the horses. The horses bolt through a fence, the wagon overturns, and Mary is killed.
The second, parallel incident is when another Creighton child, Jethro, is attacked in his wagon on the return journey from Newton. Jethro’s attacker is Guy Wortman. Wortman condemns Jethro as guilty by association with his brother Bill, who has chosen to fight for the South. Wortman’s tactics are similar to Burdow’s in that he tries to frighten the horses into bolting, in this case by lashing them with a whip.
Thus far, the two incidents are similar. But Jethro’s fate is different from Mary’s. Jethro would likely be killed if it were not for one man who saves his life: Dave Burdow, the father of the boy who killed Mary. The factor that makes the crucial difference is the kindness and mercy of Matt Creighton, who stopped the escalation of violence by talking his neighbors out of taking vengeance on the Burdows for Mary’s killing. Dave Burdow never forgets that Matt Creighton, who had most reason to want Travis dead, is responsible for saving his life. Years later, when Jethro’s life is threatened, Dave intervenes to save him. As if this were not enough, when Wortman burns down the Creightons’ barn, Dave sends wood to rebuild it. Thus, events come full circle: history repeats itself, but the outcome is the opposite. One Jethro’s journey, instead of a needless death, there is the saving of a life. After the barn is burnt, a new one is raised. Matt Creighton’s merciful attitude has led to a virtuous cycle instead of a vicious cycle, an escalation of kindness instead of an escalation of violence.
The message is that while history may repeat itself, the way that people deal with those repeated events is to some extent within their control. By exercising thoughtfulness, compassion, and forgiveness, they can sometimes transform fate from something terrible to something glorious.
2. Discuss President Lincoln’s role in the novel.
President Lincoln is portrayed as a role model and a man of mercy and restraint. In contrast to the naïve Tom and Eb and a certain sector of the public, he is slow and reluctant to declare war on the South. Once the war has started in earnest and men begin to desert, he risks political criticism by declaring an amnesty without punishment for any man who rejoins his regiment (Chapter 9). The President’s merciful stance links him with Matt Creighton, who rejected revenge and chose to forgive the Burdow family over Mary’s killing, with positive results for the entire Creighton family. The link between the two characters is reinforced in Chapter 11, when President Lincoln promises pardon and full rights to any Confederate who swears loyalty to the Union. He also promises that a Confederate state can return to the Union if ten percent of its voters establish a Union government in the state. Significantly, Matt praises the President’s mercy, but others criticize him.
The similarity between the President and Matt is not lost on Jethro, who early in the novel likens his father’s attitude to the Burdows to the President’s reluctance to go to war. While at this point Jethro does not understand either man, he comes to respect the President and view him as a friend. His attempts to better himself through education bear fruit when he writes to the President about Eb’s plight as a deserter. The President appreciates Jethro’s letter and confirms that the question Jethro raises is one to which he has given a great deal of thought. This fact helps to place Jethro on a similar level of thoughtfulness and moral authority to the President.
Hunt ensures that the President is portrayed as fully human by emphasizing his care-worn appearance by the end of the war. Shadrach reports in a letter to Jethro: “The President’s face is deeply lined, and his cheeks are gaunt” (Chapter 11, p. 166). Jethro too has aged in appearance, with his face becoming more angular and his personality more reserved. This is another factor that links him with the President.
When the President is killed by an assassin at the end of the novel, Jethro suffers deep grief and feels that he has lost a friend. As his fate has in some ways paralleled the President’s, this does not seem an exaggeration.
3. Discuss Hunt’s presentation of public opinion in the novel.
Public opinion is presented as fickle and as no guide to the truth about any character or situation. People’s opinions of the President and of the generals in charge of the Union and Confederate armies swing one way, then the other, depending on recent events and media coverage. For example, after the battle of Pittsburg Landing (Chapter 6), General Grant is criticized by the public for being caught by surprise by the Confederate forces. Jethro says that only two months ago, Grant was being praised “to the skies” (p. 93) after the battle of Donelson. Ed Turner comments, “It’s a sight easier to be a general in a newspaper office, I reckon, than it is to be one out on a battlefield” (p. 93). Ed is describing the type of person who has passed into idiom as an ‘armchair general’: someone who is not actually part of a fighting force but who judges those who are from a safe position, away from the action.
This uninformed and unreasoning quality of public opinion is demonstrated on a smaller scale in the mob’s response to Mary Creighton’s death. They do not stop to think or reason, but simply want revenge. Matt, who is the most hurt by the event, is also the only one who counsels restraint and mercy. He is later vindicated by Dave Burdow’s rescue of Jethro and the Creighton family. Similarly, when President Lincoln announces an amnesty for deserters, and later, when he announces a policy of mercy and forgiveness towards the near-vanquished South, he attracts criticism from unnamed mobs who want revenge. But the reader is left in no doubt that such thoughtful responses by individual men who find themselves in opposition to a vocal majority are morally correct. Public opinion, Hunt suggests, is open to manipulation, is unreliable, and lacks a moral compass.
4. How does Hunt present the war in the novel?
Hunt presents the war as a matter of great moral ambiguity. No one side is portrayed as being wholly right or wholly wrong. Bill’s decision to fight for the South is given no more moral authority than the other Creighton sons’ decision to to fight for the North. The war’s occurrence is no one side’s fault, but everyone’s fault; even though the North technically wins, there are no real winners. This ambiguity is reflected in the numerous discussions about the war in the novel, in which Hunt ensures that many different points of view are fairly represented. No one character’s views have a monopoly on the moral high ground except those who are reluctant to see the war start, such as Ellen and President Lincoln. Even in this case, Hunt does not imply that the President should not go to war. There is no ‘right’ choice. Ellen says of the President, “He’s like a man standin’ where two roads meet, Jeth … and one road is as dark and fearsome as the other; there ain’t a choice between the two, and yet a choice has to be made” (Chapter 1, p. 18).
It is also clear that those who bang the drum for war at the novel’s beginning, such as Tom and Eb, do so from a basis of ignorance and naivety. Tom and Eb think that “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). But the first is killed in the war and the second deserts, suggesting that fate has a way of forcing them to face reality.
The more mature voices on the subject of the war include Bill, who, like Jethro, is a scholar and a thinker. In Chapter 3, Bill says to Jethro, “I don’t know if anybody ever ‘wins’ a war, Jeth.” He adds that the war is like a fire that has been fanned by hate, and feels that “this war ought never to ha’ bin.” He says that no one side is responsible for starting it: “We all started it” (p. 41). The North is imposing and defending its high tariffs that protect its own industry and hurt the South, and the South wants to keep slavery to underpin its economy, which depends on free labor. Yet when it comes to comparing the South’s slavery against the North’s industrialized labor, Wilse Graham says, “fer every evil that you kin find fer me in the name of slavery, I’ll match you an evil in the name of industrialism” (p. 32). However, a different angle on this topic is offered by John, who comments that no matter how hopeless the plight of poor whites in the cities, none would choose to change places with “a slave belongin’ to the kindest master in the South” (p. 30).
One episode in the war that cuts through all the ambiguities and appears an atrocity clear and simple is Sherman’s looting and raiding of the South at the end of the war. While some commentators think that the South is only getting its just deserts, the notion of wreaking vengeance for perceived offenses has already been roundly discredited by such incidents as the triumph of Matt Creighton’s mercy towards the Burdows.
In the light of this, the person who comments on Sherman’s actions in Chapter 12 occupies the commonsense position: “A war ain’t won that leaves scars like this on folks who be our brothers” (p. 175). After the war, the wise analyst Ross Milton agrees with the more jingoistic pre-war view of Wilse Graham to the effect that the North will not extend a proper welcome to black former slaves who migrate north in search of new opportunities. The fact that two people from very different standpoints believe the same thing, along with the proofs offered by historical evidence, gives it added weight.
Finally, given the massive reconstruction that will have to take place after the war, Ross’s warning to Jethro has the ring of prescience about it: “Don’t expect peace to be a perfect pearl, Jeth. … This is a land lying in destruction, physical and spiritual” (Chapter 12, p. 179). Hunt shows that whatever the rights and wrongs of the war, war is destructive, and the price of such destruction must be paid.
5. Across Five Aprils has been likened to a Greek tragedy. Why is this and what is the effect on the novel?
In ancient Greek tragedy, violent action generally took place offstage. The audience would be told what had happened by a character or messenger. Then, they would see the consequences of the action. For example, in Sophocles’s tragedy Oedipus Rex (first performed approximately 429 BCE), the audience is told that Oedipus has been blinded, and then he comes onstage blinded. Sometimes the consequences of the action would be wheeled onstage in a cart, such as the body of a murdered person.
Similarly, in Across Five Aprils, the bloodthirsty action of the war is not directly described. Instead it is described in letters written by characters who have fought in the battle, after the event. Thus the action is described from a distance, both geographically (the reader does not see and hear the sights and sounds of the battlefield at first hand) and in time (the battlefield events are recollected after they have happened by the letter writer).
The effect of this is to keep the reader’s attention not on the events of the battlefield but on the senders and recipients of the letters and the relationships between them. The style of the letters reflects the educational status and character of the writer. In Chapter 4, Tom, an erstwhile enthusiast for war, writes a barely literate letter in a childlike style that perfectly conveys the pathos of a boy’s being sent to the battlefield to fight for a cause that he scarcely understands. He describes how the soldiers, lulled into a false sense of security by a hot spell, “throwed away hevey cotes and things to make our lodes a little liter” (p. 50). Tom’s ignorance of standard English spelling is matched by his youthful ignorance of battlefield conditions. Not surprisingly, many men freeze to death when the weather turns cold once again. Tom concludes, with an inarticulacy that results in an ironic understatement, “You tell Jeth that bein a soljer aint so much” (p. 50).
In this way, the epistolary style (a literary style in which events are described through letters) places emphasis on the character and situation of the sender. But it equally highlights the responses of the receivers of the letters, the Creighton family. The war is seen through the prism of the family at home. The novel is an accurate portrayal of what it is like to live through a war from the point of view of the women and children left behind. Frequently, this consists of waiting in a state of suspense, not knowing anything for sure. Sometimes, the family members are shown imagining the events described in the letter, in the same way that the reader has to utilize imagination to fill out the spare descriptions given in the letters. In the case of the letter from Tom, the tragedy of the battlefield is reflected with far more emotion on the face of Ellen as she listens to the letter being read aloud, than it is in Tom’s stilted letter: “Jethro noticed that his mother’s face was strangely twisted when he looked up from the letter; there was a look about her as if sorrow had been frozen in her face” (p. 50).
The effect of this shift in emphasis from battlefield to family at home is to show the far-reaching effects of war. As Matt Creighton says when the family discover the warning message left at their farm gate by Wortman, “This war is a beast with long claws” (Chapter 6, p. 104).