IntroductionFive Aprils pass marking the seasons of change for a young boy, from age 9 to 14, growing up in southern Illinois who comes of age during the American Civil War. Irene Hunt’s award-winning book Across Five Aprils depicts a family affected by war in this historically detailed narrative based on her grandfather’s stories of experiencing life during a pivotal and tragic era in American history.
Story LineJethro Creighton is the youngest of twelve in the Creighton family. A hard-working farm family laboring from sun up to sundown in the soil of southern Illinois, Jethro’s family is familiar with sorrow and death. Three children died during an epidemic the same year Jethro was born; one daughter was killed in a terrible wagon accident, and the eldest son has been missing ever since he left to find gold in California. When news arrives that war has broken out between the northern and southern states, the Creightons fear losing more of their precious family.
Nine-year old Jethro Creighton, his older brother Tom, and cousin Eb glorify the war and dream about being soldiers, but excitement about the war quickly turns to worry. Jethro’s brother Bill decides to enlist with the South while his other brothers John and Tom, cousin Eb, and beloved schoolmaster Shad Yale join the North. Bill’s decision to fight for the South stirs up strong feelings among some of the members of the Creighton’s community, leading to malicious threats and taunts.
After the young men leave, Jethro relishes his new responsibilities, but when his father suffers a heart attack and is unable to care for the farm, the heavy weight of change bears down hard on Jethro's shoulders. Driving the team of horses, working the land, and helping his sister-in-law with her property takes Jethro from his carefree days of planting potatoes and talking philosophy with his mother to plowing fields and talking politics and news with the men.
Threats of violence become real when Jethro goes to town and inadvertently find himself defending his brother Bill to a room full of angry young men. While driving his wagon home, an unlikely hero saves Jethro from a potential tragedy, an unsettling event which he chooses to keep secret from his family. Shortly thereafter, the Creighton's barn is set on fire and coal oil is poured into their well water. Friends and a few supportive neighbors come together to help the careworn Creightons.
With his world shifting dramatically around him, Jethro is forced to make a monumental decision when he discovers his cousin Eb hiding in the woods near the Creighton home. According to the military, Eb is a traitor and Jethro knows the penalty for harboring a traitor could become a tragedy for everyone involved.
AwardsNewbery Honor Book, 1965
Charles W. Follett Award, 1964
Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, 1966
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award
Clara Ingram Judson Memorial Award, 1965
Author Irene HuntBorn May 8, 1907 in Pontiac, Illinois, Irene Hunt grew up hearing her grandfather’s stories of being a young boy during the American Civil War. These family stories became her inspiration for the book Across Five Aprils. For most of her life Hunt was a public school educator teaching later teaching psychology at the University of South Dakota. She wrote and published her first book, Across Five Aprils, at the age of 57. She died on her 94th birthday in May 2001. (Sources: Across Five Aprils Novel Guide, Contemporary Authors Online: Irene Hunt
RecommendationIrene Hunt is a meticulous storyteller- an author gifted in developing characters so realistic they could materialize off the pages of her books. For this reason and more, Hunt is one of my all-time favorite authors. Unfortunately, she came to the publishing world late in life and her body of work is very small. Regardless, here are some reasons I’d recommend Across Five Aprils: First, the Hunt’s attention to emotional and physical detail give substance to her characters. She takes time to develop her characters through dialogue and descriptive narrative that acquaints readers intimately with their world. As each April passes the burden of maturing is manifest in Jethro’s thoughts, words, and actions.
Second, there is a strong sense of place and family in this novel. Ellen Creighton, the mother, is devoted to her family. Writes Hunt, Ellen “strives to make family ties firm and secure” which explains her anxiety over the war and the threats to her family. The family bonds are strong even when one son decides to fight for the South rather than the North. Family members are supportive, loving, and respectful of one another even when there are differences of opinion. For this reason, Jethro grapples with the way war is dividing and changing his family.
Third, Hunt’s stories are well-researched, rich in historical detail, and inspired by her own family history. In an author’s note Hunt explains how she learned family history from spending time with her grandfather and asking him detailed questions. The details of daily life on a southern Illinois farm during the American War are evident throughout her book representing the real conflict of households with divided loyalties.
Finally, Hunt underscores the value of education and the hunger for information in her stories. Jethro admires Shad Yale, the schoolmaster who sees great potential in his young student. In addition, Jethro admires Mr. Red Milton, editor of the paper, who wrote a book for the county on how to speak better. Before heading off to war, Bill advises Jethro to get some learning. Letters, newspapers, and books are valued by a majority of the characters as a source of knowledge and communication.
With all these positives, no wonder Hunt’s Across Five Aprils has become an award-winning classic. For readers who enjoy smartly written books with three-dimensional characters and a strong sense of place and family, I highly recommend Across Five Aprils. I recommend the book for ages 10 through teens. (Berkley, 2002. ISBN: 9780425182789)
Additional Recommended Fiction, From Your Guide to Children's Books, Elizabeth KennedyFor readers who enjoy historical fiction from a variety of eras, I recommend Castle Diary: The Journal of Tobias Burgess, Page, set in 1285 and Johnny Tremain, set in 1770s, as well as the other books on my list of Award-Winning Historical Fiction for Middle Grade Readers.
Other award-winning middle grade fiction that I recommend includes: Dead End in Norvelt, for which author Jack Gantos received the 2012 John Newbery Medal for young people's literature, A Wrinkle in Time, the fantasy and science fiction classic by Madeleine L'Engle and The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.