Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt was foundational in my life-long interest in the American Civil War. It was probably one of the first books that I read on the Civil War and as a youth it captivated by attention. The Aprils are 1861, 1862, 1863, 1864 & 1865 and cover the lives of the Creighton family, specifically young Jethro as they live and die through the war. I’m not sure when I first read this, but I designated it as the ninth book in my young library. Today I have over 100 books, just on the Civil War.
It has been years since I read the book, but I remember how vividly Ms. Hunt portrayed home-life during the war. I remember being caught up in the air of mystery as the Creightons would hear rumors of battles and personalities—as Ellen Creighton remarks early in the book, Seems sometimes there’s a deep silence all about us out there waitin’ to be filled.
It is easy in our world of the internet, headline news and mass communication to forget how things were even fifty years ago, when the latest news came via the newspaper. Even in the late 1960s and early 70s when I probably first read this book, news came via “the paper.” Where I grew up in south central Pennsylvania, there was the morning paper, The Patriot and the late edition, The Evening News both published out of Harrisburg—that and the news on TV is how we got our news. For the Creightons, in the early 1860s, in rural southern Illinois, the news came via telegraph, Pony Express and word-of-mouth.
Though a work of fiction, the novel draws “…from family records and from stories told by her (the author) grandfather…” and “…created living characters and vividly reconstructed a crucial period of history.”
Jethro was her youngest child, born in the year of ’52, a year in which three of her children died within one week of the dreaded disease they called child’s paralysis, a disease which struck the country that year, people said, like the soldiers of Herod.
In many ways the Creighton family, in southern Illinois, on the border of slave and free states, is representative of the division of the nation at that time. The family is not unified in their views.
For instance, Bill, Jethro’s favorite brother, feels he has to fight, but agonizes over which side to join. He ends up going with the South, while the rest of his brothers go North. Bill, right before he leaves tells Jethro:
I’ve studied this thing, Jeth, and I’ve hurt over it. My heart ain’t in this war; I’ve told you that. And while I say that the right ain’t all on the side of the North, I know jest as well that it ain’t all on the side of the South either. But if I hev to fight, I reckon it will be fer the South…The day is comin’ when I’ve got to fight, and I won’t fight fer arrogance and big money aginst the southern farmer. I won’t do it.
I recently watched the movie Shenandoah, a 1965 film starting Jimmy Stewart as a farmer in Virginia during the waning days of the Civil War. Charlie, Stewart’s character, keeps his family out of the war for most of the movie. I won’t spoil it for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but the movie reminded me of Across Five Aprils in that it dealt primarily with the homefront during the war and what common everyday people went through.
And that’s the essence of this book. What was life like for those at home; for those whose husbands, sons and fathers went off to war. We know, from this distance how things turned out, but the author does a good job of building suspense and making it seem as if we’re reading about these events for the first time.
 ALA Booklist