Study Guide

Across Five Aprils Family

By Irene Hunt


Ellen counted Shadrach as a part of her family and looked after him as she did her own, and Shadrach Yale, in turn, showed a thoughtful courtesy for her that few women of the prairies received from their own sons. (1.15)

There is a special place in Ellen's heart for Shad, which just goes to show that you don't need to be blood relatives to be considered family.

"What's hurt you, Bill?" he asked, his voice barely audible, for he was pretty sure he knew.

"We had a fight, Jeth, about an hour ago. We fit like two madmen, I guess."

"You and John?"

Bill's sigh was almost a moan. "Yes, me and John. Me and my brother John." (3.44-47)

Why the sigh? It's not just that Bill was in a fight, and it's not just that he was in a fight with a guy named John. It's because he was in a fight with his brother, and one he's supposed to be close to—hence the madmen line Bill threw out. To say they were acting mad is an indication of how ridiculous it was for Bill to be fighting someone he loves so much.

Matt read on farther down the page. "It says here that this General Buckner and Grant was comrades at West Point," he remarked, without lifting his eyes from the paper.

"Yes," Jethro heard his mother say softly to herself, "and my Bill and John was even closer than that—" (4.15-16)

Nice juxtaposition there, Ellen. In one corner we have Buckner versus Grant, ultimate opponents on the battlefield, and yet in school they seemed to have been buddies. Now Bill and John are also fighting for opposing forces and they were more than just friends—these two share the same flesh and blood. Blood may be thicker than water, but it can still be divided by war.

"Ye got some growed-up brothers in the war, ain't ye?"

"Yes, sir. Tom and Eb was with Grant at Donelson; we heered from Tom after the battle. Then there's my oldest brother, John; he jest enlisted last month."

"And wasn't there one of Matt's boys that jined up with the Rebs? Seems like I heered of it—"

Jethro hesitated. "We don't know fer sure. Bill left last fall. He ain't never sent us any word." (5.37-40)

Roll call time. Jethro is listing off all his family members who went off to war. But when he comes to Bill, a little white lie comes slipping out. Jethro is more than aware that Bill sided with the South, yet for some reason Jeth decides against confirming that. Though technically speaking, the Creightons haven't heard anything since Bill left, so there's still a shred of truth hiding in there.

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. "I wouldn't doubt but what they sense somethin' of John about you." (6.72-73)

This is an endearing moment that reminds us a bit of how Jethro enjoyed being around Shad when he was home. Jethro didn't really have an opinion on John's family in the beginning, but since all the older boys are gone and Jeth is the one taking care of all the manly man's duties, he grows closer to Nancy and the boys. On this particular occasion, Nancy takes the opportunity to suggest that the boys might recognize semblances of John in Jethro.

Above these were three other names that belonged to complete strangers as far as Jethro was concerned. The twin girls, Lydia and Lucinda, long since married and moved to Ohio, were born in 1834. The name at the top of the list was Benjamin Hardin Creighton, born in 1832. After his name, Matt had written: Left for Californy in 1849. (7.35)

Please pause for a moment while we make a mental note to henceforth call California Californy, effective immediately. So these three people are Matt and Ellen's oldest children. With some quick math, we see that oldest son Benjamin is twenty years older than Jeth and left home three years before Jethro was even born in 1852 (7.20). Complete strangers is right, and Jethro has more of a relationship with non-relatives like Shad and Ross Milton (and even Dave Burdow) then he does with these siblings.

For a few seconds Jethro forgot the Federal Registrars and the fact that not only the word which preceded Eb, but his method of announcing himself gave credence to the suspicion that he was a deserter. But for those first few seconds Jethro could only remember that this was Eb, a part of the family, the boy who had been close to Tom, the soldier who would have more vivid stories to tell of the war than ever a newspaper would be able to publish. (9.61)

There's a reason why people say to trust your gut. Instant reactions are usually parallel to our truest feelings, and Jethro immediately sees Eb as family and a survivor of war, not as a more-than-likely deserter. That familial recognition trumps any threat or worry the Federal Registrars could place in Jethro's mind.

He would like to have taken some coffee beans—a man lying out in the woods all night needed a hot drink; but that item was one he would not take. Not for Eb, not even for Bill or Shad, would he have taken his mother's coffee. (9.143)

It's hard to break a mama's boy. And to show just how much Jethro cares for his mother, we're told how he wouldn't give away something so important to her, even if it were for Bill and Shad, two men that he cares for more than most others.

[…] What you told me about Jeths intrust made good readin. And it brings comfert to me that the one brother Ive got left is close to my little boys […]. (11.19)

This one is a little heart breaking. By now John has learned of Tom's death, and refers to Jeth as the one brother he has left. Except he's not, right? Because as far as we know, Bill is still alive. But for John that clearly doesn't count. Joining up with the Rebels was such a betrayal to John that Bill is as good as dead in John's mind.

And when I turned to go he called me back and he axed me to be shore that I told this to ma and so I am ritin what he said with the hope that I will bring comfert to her. Ma—Bill wants that I shood tell you this—he was not at Pittsburg Landing. That bullet was not fired by him. . . . (11.64)

Bill finds it important enough to mention that he wasn't at Pittsburg Landing. And John finds it important enough to pass on that information to their mother. Now the real questions is, do you think it makes a difference?