Study Guide

Across Five Aprils Coming of Age

By Irene Hunt

Coming of Age

Children might have priority to a pudding or the last piece of cake, but coffee was an adult luxury, which Jethro enjoyed but dismissed with a passive acceptance of family custom that he never thought to question. On this day of the boy's graduation to "first table" honors, however, Bill took a dried crust of bread—the remains of a rarely served "white loaf"—and after soaking it in his coffee mug for a few seconds, spread it with butter and placed it on his brother's plate. (1.95)

So we're gonna ignore for a second the nasty thought of spreading butter on coffee-soaked bread, because this is a big day for Jethro, and totally on par with being bumped up to the adult table at Thanksgiving. Plus it's his best big brother Bill who does the whole coffee-bread thing as a little initiation ritual. We have a feeling it'll be a long time until Jeth gets his own full cup o' coffee, though.

He no longer talked to the children though; a phase of innocence had passed, which would never be recaptured. (3.41)

Jethro's dead siblings on the hill were almost like imaginary friends to him when he was younger, but once Mary dies and is buried up there alongside them, it all becomes more real to Jethro. Death has a way of making those left behind grow up.

"I know I kin do it, Pa. There's nothin' hard about it—jest keepin' a level head and usin' gumption."

His father smiled. "Anyway, you've got the words smooth on yore tongue. Well, you air ten now; I reckon that's old enough to take on a sizeable job." (5.22-23)

Ah, the sweet first taste of responsibility. Jethro is super stoked to take a team to Newton, and to be trusted to do all the grocery buying as well. It's a pretty important job, to be sure, but the Wortman incident might be reason to believe that Jethro's in a little over his head.

Jethro did not actually visualize the grim possibilities that faced him. He was still too much of a child, still insufficiently acquainted with violence, to believe that bodily harm could possibly come to him. (5.171)

Guess we're not as grown up as we think we are. And ignorance is most certainly bliss. All that violence that Jethro is not acquainted with yet will eventually catch up to him and then it'll be "so long, childhood" for Jeth.

If someone had asked Jethro to name a time when he left childhood behind him, he might have named that last week of March in 1862. He had learned a great deal about men and their unpredictable behavior the day he drove alone to Newton; now he was to learn what it meant to be the man of a family at ten. (6.16)

A lot of changes happen all at once for Jethro, and most are brought on sooner than normal. It's like the Express Lane to adulthood. We'll allow that Jethro is no longer solely a child at this point, but at age ten, he is still very far from being a man. And yet he is expected to perform the tasks of a man. Which brings Ed Turner to say…

"You kin count on me fer whatever help I kin spare, Jeth, and whatever counsel. You air young fer what's ahead—and I don't like to see a boy made a man too soon…" (6.18)

Like a good neighbor, Ed Turner's there. Ed knows that it's not going to be an easy ride for Jethro, and he even suggests that there is something heartbreaking about a boy being stripped of his childhood.

The difference in their ages seemed to have narrowed that spring, and subtly he stepped out of the role of a petted little brother and became a peer of Jenny, with the full rights of teasing or criticizing that had belonged to Tom a year ago. (6.54)

Now for something a little less forceful and abrupt. Jethro and Jenny transition into a more equal relationship than they'd previously had, but this evolution comes at a natural pace as Jethro and Jenny work on the farm together and chat. They're the only Creighton kids left behind, after all.

The children came and sat close to him; he had paid more attention to them lately, knowing that it pleased Nancy, and they had grown fond of him.

"They take you fer a man full growed, Jeth," Nancy said, smiling. (6.72-73)

Nothing says you've arrived quite like your own fan club. Just like Jethro looks up to Shad and Bill, now John's boys are looking up to Jeth. It's like the circle of life over here, Shmoopsters.

"I ought to go back to work now, Eb."

"I guess so," Eb looked at him with a suggestion of a smile. "I cain't git used to it—you bein' big enough to handle a team alone. You seem almost a man these days, Jeth; even yore hair ain't quite as yaller and curly as it used to be." (9.106-107)

After being away for slow long, Eb is amazed at how much Jethro has matured—but he still says that Jeth almost seems like a man. Sorry Jeth, not quite there yet. Eb also points out a physical difference in Jethro, saying that his hair isn't as curly blond as it was when he was younger. Any time there is a physical change in a book there is almost certainly an inner and emotional change as well, so keep your eyes peeled.

In the few seconds that passed before he opened the envelop, he wished with all his heart that he had not meddled in the affairs of a country at war, that he had let Eb work out his own problems, that he, Jethro, were still a sheltered young boy who did the tasks his father set for him and shunned the idea that he dare think for himself. (9.162)

It's too late to start having thoughts of going back, Jeth, and we're past the point of no return. Now that he has experienced the stresses of adulthood, Jethro longs for the carefree times of his childhood. Hey, Jethro—the grass is always greener on the other side.