Study Guide

Across Five Aprils Mortality

By Irene Hunt

Mortality

Death, however, was neither simple nor lightly brushed aside when it struck home. Jethro frowned: he didn't like to think of his sister Mary's death, but some memory had been touched off as his thoughts wandered […] He had not forgotten though; he'd been only seven that winter of '59, but the memory of the tragedy would always be sharp and terrible in his mind. (1.54)

Mary's death leaves a lasting impression on Jethro, not only because it was his first real experience with death but also because she was his older sister. And while death, with all its causes, is always a bitter pill to swallow, the circumstances surrounding Mary's death are extra tragic since it was an accident that didn't have to occur.

He loved Walnut Hill in spite of the sadness of the place since Mary died. There had been no sadness for Jethro when only the little boys were there; these three had been imaginary playmates for him when he was younger.

[…]

Matt had watched Jethro's whereabouts more closely after that, and the boy realized that for some reason his father did not approve of his going up to play on Walnut Hill. After Mary was there, he stayed away through his own choice. He knew that Mary was dead, and it made a great deal of difference. (3.37-40)

Prior to Mary being up on Walnut Hill, it was almost sort of a playground for Jeth. And since it's basically a family cemetery, we can understand why Matt would be less than okay with that. But once Mary is buried there, Jeth considers it the sacred place it's meant to be. Personally knowing someone who dies makes all the difference. This idea comes back again when Jethro realizes that Jenny has memories of the little boys when he doesn't.

Jethro sat quietly watching his teacher's sober face. He thought of boys frozen under the snow at Donelson, he remembered that he had not loved Tom as he had Bill and Shadrach, and suddenly the warm, firelit room, the smell of food, the shelves of books, all wakened a feeling of guilt in his mind. (4.89)

Death of a loved one is hard enough no matter what, but these deaths at Donelson are different than the others that the war causes. The boys who froze to death did so because of their own foolishness in throwing away blankets and coats (4.26).

But Shep didn't come back, and a few nights after his disappearance Jethro was awakened by the smell of smoke and the crackle of burning hay and wood When he ran to the door he saw the barn enveloped in flames that leaped far into the sky; hay, grain, wagon, harnesses, and plows were feeding them, and they were hungry. There was one condition that must have been a matter of chagrin for the arsonists—all the farm animals were turned out to pasture during the summer nights and so escaped a fiery death. (6.146)

At least the men who started the fire have a shred of decency in not killing defenseless animals. PETA would be proud. However it's still quite a statement that the hooligans responsible respect animal life more than they respect human life.

"[…] I mind that Tom put his arm 'long side my shoulders, and he was sayin', 'Look at 'em come, Danny; bless ol' Buell, he's fin'ly made it.' Them was his last words. He—he didn't suffer; he never knowed what happened." (7.11)

If you had to choose how to go, you might as well choose not to suffer. And Tom's death is very Of Mice and Men-ish, without the whole being killed by his best friend bit. Do you think that knowing Tom didn't suffer at all brought any comfort to Ellen and Matt?

Then she turned to the pages where the family names were written in a long column with places to the right for dates of birth, marriage, and death. She dipped a pen in ink and carried it and the Bible to her father.

Matt shook his head. "You write a better hand than I do, Jenny; you set down the date and place for me. I've done it so often—too many times." (7.18-19)

Poor Matt Creighton. If anyone's keeping count, Tom makes the fifth child that Matt and Ellen have lost. And out of twelve children originally, that's a little too close to fifty percent for anyone's comfort. We can understand why Matt wants Jenny to fill-in Tom's death—not having good handwriting is just a weak cover story.

The tragedy of that summer had never impressed Jethro so deeply as it did that afternoon when the dates stared up at him with terrible significance. (7.27)

Maybe it's because Tom has just died, or maybe it's because Jethro has grown up a bit more recently, but when looking over his family tree and seeing the death dates of the little boys, Jethro comes to a better understanding of the gravity of their losses that summer. Three boys dying within four days is a tragedy almost incomprehensible.

Antietam had been the baptismal battle for the young schoolteacher, and the letter to Jenny reflected the agony of a man new to the scenes of death and suffering. (8.31)

Hunt calling this a "baptismal battle" calls to mind the sacrament of baptism. Basically Antietam is an initiation for Shad, and witnessing all the horrors of war at this battle causes Shad to become a changed man.

The nation was ready to look for peace. If the price of peace was the dissolution of the Union, many people felt that compensation lay in stopping human slaughter. (11.40)

Forget about the issues of slavery or secession or states' rights—at this point, people just want the colossal killing of soldiers to stop. And if it means forgetting all about why the war started to begin with, then everyone is cool with that (though we'd wager plenty of enslaved people don't share this sentiment).

This was no dream. Abraham Lincoln has been senselessly slain by the hand of a madman, and Jethro Creighton, with all the people of his time, had suffered an irreparable loss. (12.78)

This death is more than just a victim of war. It is an intentional, vicious murder of the leader of a country; a single man who was admired by thousands, including Jethro. Where all the others slain in battle were mourned by their families and friends, this single murder is felt by the entire country.