Across Five Aprils: Chapters 4-6
The action is taken up once again in February 1862, which sees two victories for the North under the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant: Fort Henry in Tennessee and Fort Donelson. Grant becomes a popular hero. The Creightons worry about Tom and Eb, but soon receive a letter from Tom saying that though they took part in the fighting at both battles, they are fine. However, he adds that on their way to Donelson, many men threw away their coats and blankets as they were too heavy to carry, and subsequently froze to death in the snow.
Ellen listens as Jethro reads out the letter. In sad mood, she sends Jethro to Shadrach’s with Tom’s letter, giving him permission to stay overnight. She asks Jethro to invite Shadrach to supper the following evening, as he and Jenny do not have much time left together.
Jethro talks with Jenny, who is upset that her father will not let her marry Shadrach before he leaves for the war. She knows that her mother would permit it.
Jethro walks the mile-long journey to Shadrach’s log cabin adjoining the schoolroom. While it had been customary for teachers to board with one family after another, Shadrach had protested against the lack of privacy, and Matt had allowed him to cut trees from his own land to build the annex. Shadrach welcomes Jethro and they talk about Shadrach’s desire to marry Jenny. Shardrach says he would normally be happy to wait, but the war means that he may have to leave her for a long time, and that makes him panic.
Jethro and Shadrach talk about the two recent victories for the North. Jethro thinks they mean that the war may soon be over, but Shadrach says that this is not the case. Shadrach reads Tom’s letter and then explains the North’s strategy to cut off supplies to the South. They talk about the President, whose young son has recently died. Jethro respects Lincoln, though many despise him as the “ugly, ignorant, backwoods Lincoln” (p. 59). They also discuss Bill’s decision to join the South. Shadrach defends Bill by pointing out that he only did what he thought was right, and that his action took courage.
Shadrach tells Jethro that when he returns from the war, Jethro will live with him and Jenny and go to school and perhaps university. Shadrach plans to leave his books with Jethro when he is away at the war.
Shadrach and Jethro eat supper, sing songs, and go to bed.
Ellen has a bad headache, as she is addicted to coffee but by late March 1862, the war has pushed up the price so much that she cannot justify the expense. Matt is so concerned that he sends Jethro to Nancy’s to borrow some coffee.
Nancy gives Jethro the coffee and suggests that he visit more often to play with her sons, who are lonely since their father left. Nancy tells Jethro that she longs for the war to end. Jethro has never known her be so talkative.
Matt asks Jethro to drive the wagon the fifteen miles into Newton the following day to do some chores. It is a man’s job, but Jethro proudly insists that he can be trusted with it.
The next day, Jethro sets off for Newton. On the way he meets an old man, who asks him to buy a newspaper for him. The old man asks Jethro about a rumor he has heard to the effect that Bill is fighting for the South. Jethro answers carefully, saying that no one knows where Bill is. Jethro continues on his journey, which takes him past the Burdows’ home. To Jethro, the run-down and neglected place seems evil, being associated with Mary’s death.
Jethro arrives in Newton and goes into the general store. Ross Milton, the editor of the county newspaper, and Dave Burdow are among the men lingering there. One of them asks Jethro his name and when Jethro tells it, Burdow starts. Jethro tries not to look at Burdow. Another man (this turns out to be Guy Wortman) asks Jethro if it is true that his brother Bill is fighting for the South. Jethro says he does not know, but Wortman says that reply does not satisfy them. Addressing Burdow, Wortman says that Jethro’s father talked them into sparing Travis’s life a couple of years ago, and if Bill shows his face here again, perhaps Burdow will return the favor by persuading them to spare Bill’s life. Burdow leaves without saying a word.
Ross Milton intervenes and rebukes Wortman for tormenting a child. Another man agrees with this but adds that many people are angry about Bill’s betrayal. Jethro bravely speaks up in defense of Bill, which infuriates Wortman more. Ross and Sam Gardiner, the store owner, point out to Wortman that he is too keen to stir up mob violence but equally keen not to put himself at risk by enlisting in the army. Wortman leaves with another man, issuing vague threats as he goes.
Sam apologizes to Jethro. Ross takes Jethro under his wing, saying that he knew Jethro’s father and wants to get to know Jethro too. Ross gets one of his employees to look after Jethro’s horses, and takes Jethro to a restaurant for a meal. Jethro tells Ross that he would like to learn to speak better English, and Ross offers to lend him a book he wrote on correct speech.
Ross warns Jethro that Wortman lives along Jethro’s route home and is likely to make trouble. He advises Jethro to leave town early, before Wortman ends work for the day.
On his way home, Jethro reflects on the events in town. He has heard of an Illinois family being murdered because they were suspected of sympathizing with the South. The Burdow house seems even more threatening in the fading light, and as Jethro passes it, he feels relief. But suddenly Jethro sees Dave Burdow standing by the side of the road with his horse. Burdow jumps into the wagon beside Jethro, leading his horse by a strap, and says he wants to ride with him for a while. Jethro is afraid of Dave, especially as a neighbor, Ed Turner, had told the Creightons in the wake of Mary’s killing that he was devoid of decency and human feeling. Dave tells Jethro not to be afraid of him. He says that he heard Guy Wortman boasting that he was going to lie in wait for Jethro and ambush him on his way home. Dave takes the reins from Jethro. As they approach a bridge, a man leaps at them, swinging a whip at the horses. Dave drives the team forward and out of trouble. The man’s horse runs off.
Shortly after, Dave gets down from the wagon, pronounces Jethro out of danger, and leaves him to continue his journey home alone. His family is relieved to see him. He talks only about the pleasant events of the day until the family is about to go to bed, when he calls everyone back and tells them about the episode with Guy Wortman and Dave Burdow.
Matt is troubled by Wortman’s attack on Jethro. Ellen is worried about Matt, whom she thinks looks ill. Matt says he wants to ask Ed Turner to drive with him to Newton so that he can confront Wortman. Ellen asks him to stop by at Dave Burdow’s to make peace. She says, “We’ve held it against him that his boy stuck a knife in our hearts; now he’s grabbed a second knife that was aimed at us.”
Matt leaves to walk over to Ed’s, but Ellen hears a noise and finds Matt lying at the gate unconscious. He has had a heart attack. Matt lives, but does not regain his strength. Suddenly, at the age of ten, Jethro is the man of the family. Ed Turner pledges his help whenever he can manage it. Ed brings news of the war: the North has had a victory at Pittsburg Landing, but Ulysses S. Grant’s reputation has suffered, as the Southern forces took him by surprise. Over twenty thousand men are dead, twelve thousand of them from the Union forces. Jethro asks Ed not to tell Matt and Ellen until they hear that Tom and Eb are safe.
Jethro and Jenny work in the fields together, and they discuss the war. A neighbor brings a letter from Shadrach to Jenny. Jenny runs off to her room to read it alone. When she returns to the company of her family, she only reads certain sections out loud. Jethro is angry with her at not sharing all the contents of the letter. He thinks that she is selfish. When Jethro returns to his work in the field, Nancy arrives with some bread and butter for him. He cannot help revealing his anger about Jenny’s secrecy to Nancy. Nancy tells him that one day, he too will fall in love, and will not want to share every word that his girl writes to him. This is natural, she suggests.
Later that night, Jenny confronts Jethro about his anger, and offers to let him read her letter. He refuses, saying that he has talked to Nancy and does not want to read words that were meant only for Jenny. Suddenly they hear hoofbeats. Three men on horses have stopped at the gate. The men leave a bundle of switches tied with a cord, a symbol of a warning of punishment to come. Attached to the cord is a message warning of “trubel for fokes that stands up fer there reb lovin sons.” Ellen gets down the gun from the wall and lays it beside the bed.
For the next three weeks, someone keeps watch in the yard each night. When nothing happens for the rest of the month, this practice is given up and they simply tie the dog outside the cabin at night to stand guard. One day, the dog vanishes. A few nights later, Jethro awakes to the smell of smoke and sees the barn that contains all their grain and farm equipment burning down. Jethro goes to get water from the well and finds that it has been deliberately poisoned with coal oil.
Analysis of Chapters 4-6
The novel takes a grim and realistic view of war. Far from being glorious and heroic, it is seen as something messy and destructive that splits apart families and lovers, wreaks economic havoc, and places intolerable strains on individuals. The war is seen largely through the eyes of the youngest character, Jethro, and his childish incomprehension adds to the sense of war as something alien and threatening to humanity.
Jethro’s trip into Newton is an important turning point in the novel, both from the point of view of his own character development and because the events that flow from it explicate a major theme: the destructiveness of vengefulness, violence, and bloodshed. In this episode, these two aspects of the novel meet.
To begin from the point of view of Jethro’s character development, as a result of the bloodshed and violence wreaked on society by the war, Jethro has to take on the responsibilities of a man at the tender age of ten. He has to drive a team of horses the fifteen miles to Newton, where he is faced with aggression from Guy Wortman and his friends over Bill’s perceived betrayal of the Union. He deals with this as diplomatically as possible, but to no avail, as Wortman, who loves violence and is determined to hold a grudge, attacks him on his way home. Jethro could easily have been killed in this incident, as surely as Mary Creighton was killed by Travis Burdow in the parallel incident years before. But one factor makes the crucial difference to Jethro’s fate: his father’s determination in the wake of Mary’s killing not to take revenge on the Burdow family and perpetuate hatred. Matt Creighton earns little respect among his neighbors for his pacific stance, with even his son Jethro wondering about the wisdom of his decision. But while everyone appears to believe that his gesture was wasted on Dave Burdow on the grounds that he is devoid of human feeling about Mary’s killing, this is clearly not the case. When Dave hears Wortman planning to ambush Jethro on his way home, he intervenes and probably saves his life. Dave is a sullen and silent man, but he turns out to have a strong moral sense that has been fostered by Matt Creighton’s merciful attitude over Travis Burdow’s crime.
Just as Matt is reluctant to take recourse to violence and bloodshed, so is President Abraham Lincoln in his reluctance to go to war. The two men are alike in their foresight about the effects of violence. Contrasted with their thoughtful wisdom are the eagerness of Tom and Eb to go to war and the eagerness of Guy Wortman to resort to violence in his perceived quarrel with the Creightons. Matt and Lincoln are shown to be right, in that the novel lays bare the horror of violence and bloodshed (Mary’s death, the Wortman’s persecution of the Creightons, and the war). Tom, Eb, and Wortman are shown to be wrong: Tom is the only Creighton son to be killed in the war, Eb deserts, and Wortman’s ill-thought-out actions nearly result in the death of the innocent Jethro and cause massive suffering to the family. As if it were not enough that the Creighton family is torn apart by the war, the barn that houses all their grain and farming equipment is burnt down in an act of petty malice on the part of Wortman. Even the well from which they draw water is poisoned. A possible message to draw from these events is that the sufferings that uncontrollable fate throws at people (such as the war) are hard enough to bear, but perhaps draw out people’s stoicism because they think that they are inevitable evils with causes over which they have no personal power. But the sufferings that people inflict on one another as a matter of deliberate choice are more terrible. They can devastate lives with no apparent benefit, and have a snowball effect, with one perceived injustice (Bill Creighton’s defection to the South) leading to the suffering of an entire innocent family.
This section of the novel marks Jethro’s coming of age, at the absurdly premature age of ten. His father’s heart attack, doubtless brought on by the stresses and strains that the war has wrought, effectively makes Jethro head of the family. Jethro quickly moves into the role of parent, gathering news of the war from Ed Turner and asking him not to tell his mother and father about the losses at the battle of Pittsburg Landing until they have heard that Tom and Eb are safe. Jethro says, “Pa don’t ask about the news these days – that’s one way he’s so diff’rent.” It is as if Matt (and to some extent, Ellen) has become the child who must be shielded from reality by Jethro’s fatherly care. Matt even begins to cry like a child when he thinks of Tom.
Jethro’s conversation with Ed Turner about the changing fortunes of the war points to a theme of the novel: the fickleness of public opinion, fanned by media stories. The same general, Ulysses G. Grant, who was being praised only two months ago for his handling of the battle at Fort Donelson, is now being attacked for a mistake at Pittsburg Landing. Ed’s comment: “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,” gives the ironic and commonsense view of the ever-changing public mood.