Title: Across Five Aprils
Author: Irene Hunt
Genre: Juvenile Literature ages 9-12, Historical Fiction, Civil War
My Star Rating: 5 stars out of 5 = I Love It
I've heard this book recommended by many homeschoolers over the years as a must read during Civil War era history studies, and had purchased it for future use. Unfortunately when it was assigned the book was packed in boxes from our move so I bought the eBook version for the assignment! This fall I read this book aloud to my 7th grader as it was a parent-child discussion assignment. Some of it is in dialogue from people not speaking proper English so my son struggled to read that to himself. I even had a hard time figuring out what they were saying. I read it phonetically and then figured out most that way (versus analyzing the spelling). My point being this is a good read aloud, or kids may struggle with the dialect.
Set in southern Illinois, the story unfolds over five years, starting just before the Civil War and ending soon after the war ends. Jethro is the main character, a nine year old farmboy who is the baby in the family. Soon all his older brothers go off to war leaving his sister, he, and his parents to tend to the family farm which is a lot of work. Jethro's father falls ill and all the farmwork then falls to Jethro. Forced to grow up before his time given both the family's individual situation and the unrest in the country, this winds up being a coming of age tale. At the start of the story Jethro was a little boy and by the end he is a fourteen year old young man.
Issues with the Civil War are debated and discussed in the story by the characters. An early situation is one of Jethro's brothers sympathizes with the Southerners and leaves the family to fight with the Rebels. This causes discontent, anger and hatred in the community, since they live in The North. Later the Creighton family is the target of hate crimes punishing them for the crime of the traitor son.
Throughout the book we are informed of the happenings in the Civil War as the family hears news of various battles. Sometimes we read letters written by family members at the battlefront and other times we hear the opinions expressed in the newspapers. The opinions of the public about the Generals and President Lincoln are also shared as part of the story. I felt this showed that the issues were complicated and that even a family raised with the same values could not agree on which opinion was the right one. Later we wrestle with the issue of what should happen to soldiers who ran away from the battlefield and also what should happen to the traitors when the war was over.
A subplot is the romantic love that develops between the fourteen year old girl and the schoolteacher who winds up fighting in the war. Her father had banned their marriage before he left to fight saying she was too young to marry. The girl matured in the war years and in the end we hope to see them united in marriage and hope he makes it through the war alive. (I'll not spoil the story...)
One of the other threads in the story was that Jethro was going to school before the war broke out. He enjoyed learning. The teacher left him with schoolbooks to learn from while the teacher was away at war. The sister helped homeschool the boy and he taught himself; the mother was illiterate. They also read the newspaper as a family, reading it aloud, and the letters, so in that way the boy and the family learned. Lastly Jethro was offered an English grammar text by the newspaper editor and he taught himself proper English from the book over the years, so his own speaking and grammar improved far and above his family's. This thread about self-education and respect for learning was something I appreciated in the storyline.
I confess I am not a war story lover so in the parts that detailed the details of the battles my interest waned. However I was rivoted to the book and wanted to find out what happened to the Creighton family in the end. I would guess that any reader who likes battle details will be most interested in the book but honestly the story is solid and moves along quickly so even if you just want to know what happens to the individual people in the family and in the community you will enjoy the book.
Character traits and virtues are clearly present in this historical fiction story. There is a lot to talk about regarding ethics and values as well as the topic of the Civil War. The book gave me a sense for what life was like for those who were both fighing in the war and those who were left at home struggling to make ends meet with most of the men in the family gone off to war.
This is a solid, high quality historical fiction book that I think every middle school aged student should read, hopefully in conjunction with a study of The Civil War. I bet they'd learn a lot more by reading this than by reading a boring old textbook.