Now this is a story all about how
Jeth's life got twisted upside down.
And we'd like to a minute to give it a whirl,
Tell you all about Jethro Creighton in Across Five Aprils.
And that's how you spit it Big Willie style. So who is this Jethro of which we speak? Why only the mainest main character in the entire book. Here's the rundown on Jethro:
Okay, now that we got that out of the way, onto the nitty gritty of Mr. Jethro Creighton.
Jethro is the youngest of a big family. And by big, we're talking eleven siblings—though he really only knows five of them. But being the baby means he has a lot of people to look up to and—at least for his mother, Ellen, and brother, Bill—he's the favorite.
Ellen considers Jethro her special child since he survived the devastating epidemic that killed three of his older brothers the year he was born (1.9). She has absolutely no qualms about deeming him her favorite. As for Bill, while he's closer in age with John he shares a very special relationship with Jethro—so naturally he wins the prize of being Jethro's choice brother too. After Ellen tells Jethro that Bill would "put his hand in the fire fer you, Jeth" (1.91), Jethro never considers having a different brother as his favorite.
But once all the older boys head off to war, Jethro and Jenny are the only children left at home. This particular relationship goes through quite a transformation. It takes a bit of time, but eventually "[Jethro] stepped out of the role of a petted little brother and became a peer of Jenny, with the full rights of teasing or criticizing" (6.54). And it's a good thing too, because these are hard times and having a friend only helps.
Just how close these two youngest siblings have become is painfully clear when Jenny leaves to help Shad and she and Jehtro have to say goodbye to each other in silence because "there was too much danger of a breakdown if they talked" (10.29). Likewise, when Shad and Jenny finally return home, Jethro runs toward her open arms. Probably while a Journey song was playing. But we're just guessing here.
A big part of Jethro's growing up results from his newfound responsibility for taking care of his family. That's a big responsibility for anyone, but Jethro's just a little kid—and the baby of the family—which only makes it a bigger load to carry. But Jethro takes it all in stride. Who goes to get Ellen's coffee? Jethro. Who takes charge of keeping the farm up and running when Matt ends up on the disabled list? Jethro. And who decides to try to single-handedly solve Eb's desertion problem? Why, that'd be our boy Jethro. When push comes to shove, Jethro is there to support his family.
And the thing about his loyalty is that, unlike plenty of other folks, it knows no side of the war. When Guy Wortman starts spewing his hate speech about Bill fighting for the Confederacy, Jethro stops him in his bullying tracks saying, "I think more of my brother than anybody else in the world" (5.88). End of story. Case closed. Finito. When it comes down to Union versus Confederacy, Jethro is on Team Creighton.
Because this book spans five Aprils, it covers a big chunk of Jethro's development. When we first meet him, he's a mere nine years old after all, and by the end, he's a strapping young lad of thirteen.
But while we expect Jethro to grow and change as he shifts from kid to teenager, Jethro has to adjust to doing the work of an adult man rather quickly. One day he's just hanging out in the field with his mom talking about Copernicus, and the next thing we know he's in charge of the entire farm with only the help of his sister and a rotation of neighbors because his dad has had a heart attack and all of his brothers are off at war. That's a huge shift in responsibility, and it literally happens overnight for Jethro.
No matter how old he gets in this book, though, Jethro remains just young enough to not have to fight in the war and yet old enough to be mentally and emotionally affected by it. It's a lose-lose whichever way you look at it, but he handles it like a champ. Or rather, like a rebel. Jethro spends a lot of time contemplating things like:
Jethro goes over these questions in his head—just like we saw Bill do before he left. Needless to say then, it's not surprising that as Jethro gets closer to manhood, he begins to resemble Bill's thoughtful disposition. Toward the end of the war, Matt and Ellen notice Jeth become "gentle with them" with "a reserve about him that had grown steadily greater with the years" (12.33). This would be fine and dandy—pretty much all parents want their kids to be nice to them—but it raises some read flags for Matt and Ellen since Bill made such a spectacular departure.
They needn't be worried, of course, since the war will end before Jethro can pick a side. The more important comparison between Jethro and his older brother, then, is their regard for their parents. Even when given the exciting news that he'll get an education while living with Shad and Jenny, Jethro's main concern is about leaving his parents since "they depend on [him]" (12.101). Jethro takes his responsibility as man of the house quite seriously, even in the face of wonderful opportunities for him personally.
It's kind of odd to center a war story on a character who isn't actually fighting in the war. And there are certainly plenty of characters caught up in the midst of battle that Hunt could have easily used to show the horrors of war. So why Jethro? Because aside from being the perfect age for a coming-of-age tale, Jethro is proof that war makes life pretty crummy for the people left behind at home.
And Jethro's not just any old someone left behind. In the beginning, he is a poor innocent young boy—and nothing drives the war is bad point home quite like showing a defenseless child suffering and struggling as war ravages his country. It's the same reason why Guy Wortman comes across as the ultimate jerkface. If he ran his mouth off at an adult he'd still a jerk, but it wouldn't be that big of a deal. Jethro's vulnerability and naiveté, on the other hand, makes him the perfect target to showcase the ultimate nastiness of the war and Wortman.
You know the idea that children are our future? (Okay, or the song…) In Across Five Aprils, Jethro—as a child—represents the future, which means that our young protagonist's coming-of-age saga also hints at the continuing effects war can have on both a child and the future.
Jethro spends his formative years caught up in the drama of the Civil War. Since it's an enormous, country-dividing war, and it erupts right as he is leaving childhood behind and entering adolescence, you can bet your bottom dollar that it shapes the person Jethro becomes—not only in the ways we see in the book, but going forward. And the same, of course, is true for the United States. The country—like Jethro—is radically changed by the war. Just try to imagine how different thirteen-year-old Jethro would be if the war had never happened… and then try to imagine how different our country would be.
Jethro is well aware that his family swings to the Union side of the fence, even if Matt Creighton acknowledges their family roots in Kentucky. But that doesn't mean Jethro is all gung-ho for the war like Tom and Eb. Still young when the rumors of war start, Jethro gets internally frustrated as he "groped toward an understanding of something that was far beyond the excitement of guns and shouting men" (2.28). Unfortunately for Jethro, war doesn't become any clearer as he grows older through the Aprils.
Jethro eventually comes to believe that whenever something good happens, "disappointment and disaster inevitably followed" (8.7). It's a pretty pessimistic outlook, but that's what happens when your team is losing and the war has taken away people you care about. Jethro sees the war for how it affects his family, so while Fort Sumter might have been the spark to actually ignite the war, for Jethro, "the meaning of the war began with Donelson" (11.4). Why Donelson? Because that's the first battlefield that is graced with the presence of Tom and Eb. And that's when the war starts getting real for Jethro.
In a sense, Jethro is fighting against how the war changes his life. When Eb returns as a deserter, Jethro is aware of the law that requires him to turn in his cousin—but this is Jeth's family we're talking about here. So instead of reporting Eb, Jethro pulls out the big guns and writes a letter to the President asking for him to give Eb a mulligan. When it doesn't seem like Jethro can do much to limit the affects of war, he has the courage and moxie to seek out help from friends in high places. Luckily for him (and Eb), in this case it works out.