Across Five Aprils Chapter 1
It is an April morning in 1861 in southern Illinois. Ellen Creighton is out with her son Jethro planting potatoes on the family farm. She is a tired, little woman who has given birth to twelve children and endured various hardships in her life. Jethro, the youngest child of the family whom she favors, was born during a year when three of her children died from disease within one week.
Mother and son work the fields in silence. Jenny is preparing lunch in the cabin while Matt Creighton and his two sons do the spring plowing. A little later, Shad Yale can be seen driving to Newtown on his wagon. "A tall powerfully built youth of twenty, with a firm mouth and grave, dark eyes that [give] him the appearance of an older man," Shad is the local schoolmaster from Philadelphia. Chapter 1, pg. 10 He came to teach at the school where Matt Creighton is a director in order to support himself through college. It will be his third term this coming fall, and Shad shares a special relationship with the Creightons who has treated him like a member of the family. In Shad, Jethro finds a role model, and in turn, Shad feels affection for his little student who is always eager to learn.
After promising Ellen to bring back the latest newspapers, he tells her not to worry, but Ellen is apprehensive and sad. Although he is sad to see his mother worry, Jethro is not worried about the likelihood of war. He has heard his brother Tom and his cousin Eb talk about it, and he has learned that the fear of war is "a womanly weakness." But Ellen does not feel that way, telling him that she is afraid of losing all of her children.
In order to divert her attention from war, Jethro tells his mother about Copernicus and how he, going against the beliefs of his society, argued that the earth revolved around the sun. But soon enough, Ellen is back to thinking about the war, and Jethro can't do anything to distract her. Recently, he has noticed many adults in the community talking about the election in 1860, tariffs, slave and free states. Many are angry that President Lincoln has not yet declared war. Jethro knows about wars from his lessons at school about the American Revolution. To Jethro, "war [means] loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores at Newton; it [means] men riding like kings, looking neither to the right nor the left." Chapter 1, pg. 15 He knows that people die in wars, but Jethro is certain than if Tom and Eb ever go to war, they would return. "It would be shadowy men from distant parts who [die] for the pages of future history books." Chapter 1, pg. 15
For the Creightons, however, death is a serious subject. During the winter of 1859, Mary was killed in an accident. She had gone to a dance at Hidalgo with Rob Nelson where a group of young boys from the south began making a clamor. On their way back, Rob and Mary had encountered Travis Burdow, one of the drunken boys. Travis had fired a pistol over the horses that Rob had been driving, and when the animals were frightened, the wagon was overturned, killing Mary. Because Matthew Creighton was respected by others in the community, the town had been disturbed by the news of the death of his daughter. The Burdow family was not liked because it was said that Travis Burdow's grandfather had come to Jasper County to escape a mob of people who could no longer tolerate his petty thieving. Ever since then, the family had been disliked by others in the town. Dave Burdow, Travis Burdow's father, was a silent man who kept to himself like his children who had been continually insulted by other kids at school. A group of citizens was determined to hunt down Travis and hang him for the crime he had committed, but Matt Creighton had stopped them. Jethro wonders at his father's hesitance then, and thinks that President Lincoln is similar to his father because he is so reluctant to go to war. Jethro prefers "the hard, unyielding attitude" of Tom and Eb during their conversations about war, but Ellen tells him that the president has a choice to make between two difficult ones.
At noon, Jethro and Ellen slowly make their way toward their small log cabin. Nancy has come with her young children, and Jenny tells Jethro that she has prepared lettuce for him for "spring eatin'." During the winter, Jethro had wanted some green food in exchange for all the meat that he had eaten. Originally from Kansas, Nancy is John's shy wife. Although she is part of the family, she is aloof. John always tells Ellen to be patient with her. She was raised harshly by relatives, and thus it is not easy for her to be openly affectionate.
Soon, the men come in to eat. Jethro sits with his parents and elder brothers at the table because like them, he too is fieldworker. Besides Jethro, there is Tom who is a "mild-faced lad" of eighteen. Eb Carron is Matt's nephew who has lived with the Creightons since being orphaned as a child. Jethro's favorite, however, is Bill who is generally considered strange in the neighborhood. Indifferent to hunting or wrestling or drinking, Bill who likes to read is thoughtful and gentle. John who is the oldest of the siblings left at home is very close to Bill, and Ellen takes pride in the fact that her family members are close to one another. On the other hand, Jethro is not very close to John whose wife's shyness makes it difficult for him to approach his brother's family.
During dinner, the boys praise Jenny's cooking. When Tom teases Jenny about Shad, Matt quietly warns that Jenny is too young to be thinking about men. Jenny finds it frustrating it that ever since her father has talked to Shad, Shad has acted "solemn and paternal" toward her. When John expresses an interest in reading the papers from town, there is tension among the family members. The talk of war causes mixed emotions among the family members, and it is a topic Bill is unwilling to discuss. There is "a troubled preoccupation" within the family.
Later in the day, Ellen and Jethro go back to the fields to work. As they are taking a break, a wagon approaches, and it is Cousin Wilse Graham, Ellen's nephew from Kentucky who has come to see the Creightons.