Study Guide

Across Five Aprils Men and Masculinity

By Irene Hunt

Men and Masculinity

"You hev hedged Ma's question, Cousin Wilse. What about the right and wrong of one man ownin' the body—and sometimes it looks as if the soul, too—of another man?" (2.17)

The question is rooted in the heart of slavery and John is not afraid to make Wilse answer it. Slavery supporters were iffy on calling slaves men, so John makes his stance crystal clear when indicating that an enslaved person is equal in their humanity to a slave-owner.

He wanted to weep, but one endured a lot before he disgraced himself in that way. (2.28)

Jethro Creighton is definitely on the boys-don't-cry wavelength. But he doesn't just think crying isn't manly—he thinks it's disgraceful. Yikes.

It had been customary in years past for the schoolmaster to room and board with first one family and then another throughout the district, but young Yale had protested against the lack of privacy, and Matthew Creighton had been sympathetic.

"A man has the right to the dignity of his own fireside after a day's work," he said. (4.55-56)

This seems more along the lines of right to privacy but we'll go along with Matt and dignity. We can understand wanting to be in the comfort of one's own home after a long day of molding the minds of young Americans. And good guy Matt Creighton is right there siding with Shad.

It was fifteen miles to Newton; to cover that distance with a team, to do the chores and handle money—that was a man's job. To be trusted with it was a huge satisfaction. (5.21)

If you thought doing errands was a woman's job, you've got another think coming. Going into town is Jethro's first manly responsibility and he's totally chuffed that Matt's letting him take this on. A big part is the amount of trust that goes into it—riding the long trip, exchanging money, picking up goods. This is certainly not a task for a child.

He had worked since he could remember, but his work had been done at the side of some older member of the family; when he had grown tired, he was encouraged to rest or sometimes he was dismissed from the task altogether. Now he was to know labor from dawn till sunset; he was to learn what it meant to scan the skies for rain while corn burned in the fields, or to see a heavy rainstorm lash grain from full, strong wheat stalks, or to know that hay, desperately needed for winter feeding, lay rotting in a wet quagmire of a field. (6.16)

And the training wheels come off. Jeth is entering the major leagues now and that means he's responsible for the entire farm. Talk about pressure. Even if he's not technically a man yet, he sure will be working like one… or five or six.

Jethro was not yet in any mood approaching perfect sweetness and light.

"Tendin' a team is man's work," he said grimly. "I'll do my own unhitchin' and waternin'." (6.103-104)

This is actually a little moment of immaturity for Jeth. For one thing, he's jealous that Jenny didn't read Shad's letter out loud, so he turns away her help when he comes home from John's place. And we're not sure about the rules, but we don't think real men act all passive-aggressive and then call themselves men. Jeth needs to keep his emotional self-righteousness in check.

May I remind you that Tom Creighton died for the Union cause, that he died in battle, where a man fights his opponent face to face rather than striking and scuttling off into the darkness? (7.16)

Leave it to Ross Milton to lay down the law when it comes to who is a real man. The open letter to the scumbags who burned down Matt's barn draws a very clear line in the sand. On one side are soldiers like Tom Creighton who don't run away from their enemies, and on the other side are people like Wortman who are weak cowards undeserving to be called men.

"Be glad you're a boy, young feller, and don't hev to pester yoreself with all these troubles that men be sufferin' through these days," he said genially.

Jethro had picked up a mannerism from his mother. He closed his eyes briefly, as if to hide from the world the exasperation with which the man's words struck him. He knew he must keep quiet; these men were kind, generous men, and anyway, a boy had no right to contradict a man's opinion. If they wished to think of him as an ignorant child, he must not try to change their idea of him, but it was a bitter dose to swallow. (8.29-30)

So Jethro still considers himself a boy if he's not talking back to the old man. Or he's just respectful. Or both. (Which we think is the more likely option.) However, ignorant child he most certainly is not.

And what was it that man said the day of the barn-raisin'? 'It's good that you're a boy and don't have to worry yourself about this war.' Why yes, no doubt about it, eleven-year-old boys ain't got a thing to worry about; this year of 1863 is a fine, carefree time for eleven-year-old boys..." (9.115)

Ah, some refreshing sarcasm. There truly is nothing quite like it. For one thing, just because Jethro's still a boy doesn't mean he's not worrying about the war. He has taken on the man's role in his family, after all, and if men can worry about the war, then so can Jeth. And furthermore, even if Jethro were able to be just a regular kid his age, nearly everyone he loves is off fighting in the war. There is no way he's just gonna not worry about them.

Matt seldom questioned Jethro's decisions. The boy was doing a man's work; he was due the dignity accorded to a man. (9.152)

Do you need another reason to love Matt Creighton? Because here it is. Matt is awesome enough to treat Jethro like a man, considering the fact that he's working hard like one, and that means not giving Jeth the third degree on his decisions and respecting Jethro's judgment. We nominate Matt for Father of the Year.