Across Five Aprils, by Irene Hunt

March 22, 2011 at 12:35 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Mediocre Books) (, , , , )

4/10

Never judge a book by its cover, eh? And this book is prime fodder for that axiom. Marketed for students who don’t have any choice in the matter, and for people with a shamefully romanticised idea of what it was like to live in the era before toilet paper, a prospective reader might be excused for expecting nothing but the smell of hay in the air, gals and their fellers attending barn dances, and love coming softly. Those prospective readers might also be forgiven for giving Across Five Aprils a very wide berth; and frankly, Irene Hunt gets off to a famously bad start.

The reader is instantly thrust headfirst into the middle of an utterly unlikeable and unattractive family, dirt farmers from way-back-when; and expected to sit avidly through supposedly halcyon reminiscences of roasting sweet potatoes and bits o’ hog over hot coals and having a good ol’ timey ol’ time. This is not the way that interesting books are supposed to begin. Hunt introduces her readers to a family they care nothing about, and commences for an agonising forty pages to give them that many more reasons to put the book down and make a sandwich instead. After a while, the ‘good ol’ fashioned war’ begins, and despite his best efforts, any honest reader begins to empathise with the characters, and the story actually starts to grow interesting. Engaging, even. There are some very plausible villains and heroes, and if Matt Creighton is a poor man’s Atticus Finch and Jethro is a poor man’s Tom Sawyer, then at least Hunt has created characters real enough and solid enough to be compared at all with these classics.

The goodness and badness (and redeemed…ness) of various characters is also treated sensitively, and their various virtues and vices are not forced too emphatically down the reader’s throat. Nor indeed are all of the collective storylines concluded in a neatly packaged bundle, which is also refreshing. Unfortunately, the author feels the pressure to at least finish the war, possibly to end the whole thing on a cheery note of optimism – although when she includes the disastrous assassination of Lincoln, this motive seems a little unlikely. Undoubtedly its rigid adherance to the historical narrative – from “beginning” to “end” – is what has kept this book in schools; but equally undoubtedly, this has also kept it from being a success, as the narrative leaves a surprisingly exciting middle section and ends with as little appeal as it began.

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4 Comments

  1. David said,

    This is actually a slightly more positive review than I expected, though it was really unfair of me to expect anything. I was one of those students who managed to avoid reading this book in grade school. I saw the cover, read the title, and knew I would much rather reread The Hobbit instead. It was the arrogance of youth in me, which we all do well to shake off, but I am rather relieved to hear that my arrogance seems to have been well-directed, at least this once.

    I do remember reading My Brother Sam Is Dead in grade school — another Civil War novel attempting to show the grittiness of war to impressionable kids. I don’t remember much, except that I detested it. Have you any familiarity with or thoughts on that one?

  2. J. Holsworth Stevenson said,

    Following your suggestion, I checked it out. As far as historical fiction goes, My Brother Sam Is Dead wasn’t all that bad. My chief problem was the historical period in question; British and English history are my real areas of interest, until at least the twentieth century. Following close on its heels, my second complaint was the book’s unbearably thick and gooey pathos and melodrama. But working within those two frameworks (an era I’m unfamiliar with and the urgent need to drum into teenage readers that–this…is…really…tragic), the authors did fairly well.

    • David said,

      Thanks for reading it on my suggestion! I’ll go to that review now.

  3. Tineke said,

    I read this book for school, of course, at a time when I was preoccupied by the idea of war. I don’t remember very much about it except that it inspired me to write a very long poem of lament about dead husbands, sons, and lovers, so I conclude from that that it was not very good literature. I don’t thank anything that leads me to commit acts of sentimentalism.

    I do, however, have warm memories of a lesser known title of hers, Up A Road Slowly. Your review has inspired me to get my hands on it again and see whether it holds up to adult inspection any better than Across Five Aprils.

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