Across Five Aprils Plot Summary
The story begins in April of 1861 in southern Illinois during a morning when Ellen and Matt, and their sons are working on the family farm. There is tension within the family as well as in the community because of the prospect of a war breaking out. Ellen is worried and sad, but the younger boys, Eb and Tom, are overly eager and confident. People are beginning to wonder why the President is so hesitant to declare war. Shad, the local schoolteacher who is in love with Jenny, goes to Newtown to get the latest news from the papers and returns to inform the family that the Confederate army has fired on Fort Sumter.
In late summer, Tom and Eb leave home to fight in the war, and there is news of another Northern defeat. Bill who does not talk much seems troubled about the events surrounding the war. He does not approve of slavery, but he also does not like another form of slavery in the name of industrialism in the North. One day in October, after saying good-bye to Jethro, Bill leaves home to fight for the South.
In 1862, there is a Northern victory in Tennessee, and Ulysses S. Grant becomes a familiar name to those who read the papers. Tom writes a letter home, saying that being a soldier isn't what he has expected it to be. Shad and John prepare to leave to fight, and before Shad leaves, he leaves Jethro his books, instructing his student to learn from the papers and keep up with the events of the war.
One day, Matt sends Jethro on an errand to Newtown which is fifteen miles away. Jethro who is proud to have been entrusted with a man's job drives to town where he makes purchases and exchanges. There he encounters a drunk man named Guy Wortman who is outspokenly disapproving of the Creightons whose son Bill has gone to fight for the Confederate army and Dave Burdow who is generally disliked in the community. The name Burdow is familiar to Jethro because his sister, Mary, was killed in an accident caused by Dave Burdow's son. Jethro also meets Ross Milton who treats him to a dinner at the town restaurant. On his way back home, Jethro is almost killed when Guy Wortman jumps out of the woods to scare his horses, but Dave Burdow saves his life by driving the wagon for him.
The family is frightened and worried after listening to what has happened to Jethro on his way home from Newtown. To make matters worse, Matt has a heart attack, and Jethro must learn to do the farm work and the chores around the house. In April of 1862, there is another Confederate victory as Grant's army is surprised by the rebels, and on the Creighton farm, Jenny and Jethro keep each other company by working the fields together. The family is terrified when one night, a group of ruffians come to warn them of havoc they will wreak. For three weeks, neighbors come to stand watch for the Creightons, but when nothing happens, they begin to think that they have worried uselessly. One night, however, the Creighton barn is set afire and the well is contaminated.
That spring, neighbors and friends come to help the Creightons. After the battles at Shiloh, Dan Lawrence who has been in the war comes to tell the family that Tom has been killed. Tom's death is mourned, and the entire town is in a somber mood because of the war. There is a funny incident, however, at Sam Gardiner's general store. In order to protect his store from a group of looting ruffians, Sam Gardiner stands watch and ends up shooting Guy Wortman in the buttocks. When Ross Milton prints the story in the papers, Guy Wortman is humiliated. When the news of Grant's demotion reaches Jethro, he wonders why the North has incompetent generals while the South has excellent leaders.
Although the spring and the summer of that year have been good for the Union cause, by fall, the situation is looking bad for the North. In September, the Creightons with the help of their neighbors rebuild their barn. There is news that the President has put another man in command replacing the previous general, McClelland. By the end of 1862, people are becoming disillusioned with the endless war and losing faith in their leaders as deserters from the army flock into Illinois. Point Prospect becomes a campground for the deserters of the army. When a man named Hig Phillips is murdered by a group of young deserters in Jasper County, the town is frightened. In early 1863, three men from the Federal Registrars come to the Creighton home, looking for Eb who has deserted the army.
While helping out in John's fields, Jethro hears strange sounds from the woods and finds Eb, thin and hungry, hiding out among the trees. Troubled and unsure about what to do for his deserter cousin, Jethro finally decides to write a letter to President Lincoln to ask for help. The President writes a kind reply to Jethro's letter, informing him that all deserters who report to certain posts will be pardoned and reinstated.
In May, there is news of another Union loss, and Grant is criticized in the papers for being inactive. In Gettysburg, however, the Union army wins a victory. One day, there is a letter from Shad's aunt in Washington DC who writes the Creightons that Shad is in critical condition after having been injured in battle. Jenny goes to Washington to see Shad, and soon, he recovers to marry her.
In June, there is a letter from John who writes about the battle at Chickamauga, and in November, the President makes a speech at Gettysburg which is received with mixed emotions from different people. That winter, there is talk of the end of war, but the end does not come so readily. The President declares a proclamation of amnesty that will pardon any Confederate state that supports the union, but both the North and the South criticize it. In 1864, President Lincoln is reelected despite many doubts, and the North receives some good news of victories in battles. During the winter, John writes a letter, telling the family that he has seen Bill who was held captive. Bill had asked John to tell the family that he was not at Pittsburg Landing where Tom had died-that he had not been the one who killed Tom.
By 1865, the war is nearing its end, and Jethro turns thirteen. His parents worry because he has grown up to be so much like Bill. In the fifth April of the war, there is news that the terms of peace have been signed. The town is in a celebratory mood until there is news that the President has been assassinated. Jethro lies on Walnut Hill, depressed, but Shad and Jenny return home from Washington, promising to take him with them to the East where he will get a good education.