In 1964, author Irene Hunt (1907-2001) published the middle-grade novel Across Five Aprils. It’s the coming-of-age story of nine-year-old Jethro Creighton, the youngest of five brothers and a sister. They live and work with their parents Matt and Emma on a farm in southern Illinois.
This coming-of-age story is set during the Civil War, beginning in 1861. It’s so well done, and such a good story, that it’s no wonder that it was runner-up to the Newberry Medal in 1965 (her second book, Up the Road Slowly, won the medal in 1966). In 212 pages, Hunt manages to tell both the story of the Creighton family and the story of the Civil War itself.
Told from Jethro’s perspective, we watch what happens when the reports come of the fall of Fort Sumter. The oldest brother has not been heard from in years, having gone to California for the Gold Rush. Two brothers and the cousin who lives with the family join the Union army; Jethro’s favorite brother Bill joins the Confederate army. Jenny’s beau, the schoolteacher Jethro adores, eventually throws his lot in with the Union.
While it is the story of the war and how his brothers fare, Across Five Aprils is also Jethro’s story and what happens back home. When Jethro is 10, his father suffers a heart attack, and the boy suddenly finds himself of being head of the family. Through Jethro’s eyes, we see the violence that happens in a region of conflicted loyalties, the impact of the war’s news on the family, and how the war meant unexpected struggles on the home front.
The characters seem like real people. Hunt had a gift for characterization, and even the minor characters come alive on the page. Hunt based the story on the tales and letters of her own grandfather, who experienced the Civil War much as Jethro does in the novel. She also did extensive research in newspaper reports, government documents, histories, biographies, and memoirs.
Hunt, a native of Illinois, taught English and French in Illinois schools and later psychology at the University of South Dakota. She returned to Illinois to become director of language arts at a junior high school. Including Across Five Aprils, she published eight novels between 1864 and 1985, and she won several awards for children’s literature. She died on her 98th birthday in 2001.
After 60 years, Across Five Aprils has stood the test of time. It’s a riveting read as we watch, through a boy’s eyes, as the war unfold. The Creighton family will endure heartbreak and tragedy, fear and violence. But it is the family that endures.
Top photograph: A farmer and two boys cutting hay in Kentucky during the Civil War.