The novel opens in April 1861 on the Illinois farm of the Creighton family. Ellen Creighton and her nine year-old youngest son Jethro are out in the fields planting potatoes. Jethro was born in 1852, the year in which three of Ellen’s children died from a disease called child’s paralysis. Jethro had survived. For this reason, Ellen favors Jethro and overlooks faults in him for which her other children would be punished.
In a neighboring field, Ellen’s husband Matt Creighton is plowing, helped by his two older sons. Ellen’s daughter Jenny rushes out of the farmhouse to say goodbye to her boyfriend, Shadrach Yale, the local schoolteacher, who is driving into the nearby town of Newton. Everyone knows that the real reason he is going is to find out news about the war that is expected to break out between the North (the Union) and the South (the Confederacy). Ellen dreads the possibility of war, but Jethro has been influenced by the excitement of his brother Tom and cousin Eb, who lives with them. Tom and Eb think that “War meant loud brass music and shining horses ridden by men wearing uniforms finer than any suit in the stores in Newton” (Chapter 1, p. 15). When Jethro tells his mother about Tom and Eb’s attitude, she is exasperated, saying that she dreads losing all her sons to the war except Jethro, who is too young to sign up. Jethro then tells her about Copernicus, the astronomer who formulated the now accepted model of the universe that has the earth revolving around the sun.
As he works, Jethro reflects on a terrible episode in 1859, when his sister Mary was killed by a drunken youth called Travis Burdow while returning home from a dance. Matt’s neighbors were furious and wanted to hunt down Travis and hang him. Matt intervened and talked them out of taking revenge. Jethro feels impatient with his father’s determination to keep a cool head, just as he feels impatient with President Abraham Lincoln’s reluctance to declare war on the South. He shares his thoughts about the President with his mother, who says that he faces a choice between two routes, either of which seems undesirable.
The family gathers in the farmhouse and eats lunch together. They discuss Shadrach and Jenny’s romance, but Matt says Jenny is too young to think about marriage.
Ellen and Jethro are back out in the field when they hear a wagon approach. The visitor turns out to be Ellen’s nephew, Wilse Graham, from Kentucky. The Creightons offer him a bed for the night, and he accepts.
Over dinner, the Creightons and Wilse Graham talk about the nation’s troubles. Matt asks Wilse if he thinks Kentucky will “go secesh”, that is, secede or break away from the Union and fight with the rebel Southern States. Wilse thinks it may, and adds that the river states (which adjoin the Mississippi river, an important trading route) will find it difficult if Missouri and Kentucky join the Confederacy. Wilse thinks that southern Illinois, where the Creightons are based, is closer to the South than the North. Matt says that his family are from Kentucky, but he feels that the Union must not be weakened by secession. Wilse says it is only the North that has grown rich, and it does not care if the South starves. Ellen says that slavery is becoming increasingly acceptable, and a stand has to be made against it. Wilse argues that the South should be able to do as it likes. He is sure that England would come to the South’s aid in any war, as its textile industry relies on supplies of Southern American cotton. He thinks the South could fight a war for years if need be.
John repeats Ellen’s challenge to Wilse about slavery. Wilse admits that he owns “a few slaves,” but insists that slavery has existed since the beginning of history. Wilse challenges the Creightons: if all the slaves in the South were suddenly freed and came to the North, would the abolitionists there welcome the former slaves into their churches, schools, housing stock, and workforce? John replies that plenty of whites do not enjoy comfortable lives in the northern cities, yet they are still better off than slaves. Bill feels that the arguments over slavery have been exploited in order to drown out the issue of greed and close-to-slave labor in the rapidly industrializing North.
Jethro realizes that his excitement at the prospect of war was premature.
Ellen asks for the arguing to stop and Wilse apologizes.
Shadrach arrives back from Newton. He reports that the Confederates have opened fire on the Union’s army at Fort Sumter, and that the Union force has surrendered. Jenny asks Shadrach if the war has started. Shadrach replies that as Congress is not in session, it cannot declare war, but President Lincoln has asked for seventy-five thousand volunteers to sign up to the army, so in reality, the war has begun.
By the summer, the Union has suffered another defeat at the battle of Bull Run. People no longer talk with bravado about a rapid victory for the North. Rallies are held to whip up patriotic feeling and to encourage men to enlist. John and Shadrach plan to sign up and leave for the war by mid-winter. Tom and Eb leave for the war in late summer. Bill remains oddly silent about his plans.
News comes of another defeat for the North, at Wilson’s Creek, Missouri. There is much admiring talk of a young officer called McClellan, who has been put in command of the army in the East. Jethro starts to have nightmares about the war. Bill comforts him, and the two talk. Bill says that neither side in the war is in the right. He says that the South is only interested in getting rich from slavery, but the North is no better, wanting to get rich from imposing high tariffs and from another form of slave labor in its factories.
One afternoon in the fall of 1861, Jethro visits Mary’s grave on Walnut Hill. Bill joins him. Jethro is shocked to see that Bill’s face is bruised and swollen. Bill tells Jethro that he has had a fight with John over his (Bill’s) decision to go to fight for the South. He says, “I won’t fight for arrogance and big money against the southern farmer.” Bill is leaving now without saying goodbye to the rest of the family. Jethro is terribly upset at losing his favorite brother. Bill advises Jethro to focus on his education, and leaves for the war.
Analysis of Chapters 1-3
This section of the novel marks the beginning of the disintegration of the close-knit Creighton family due to the war. Bill is the first to leave. Shockingly, he aims to fight for the South. His decision means that the family is divided not just geographically, as the sons go off to fight, but ideologically. While Bill’s own family do not judge him adversely for his decision, the neighbors do. In their eyes, the Creightons have a traitor in their bosom, and Jethro and the rest of the family will later face the consequences.
Ellen’s comment to Jethro on President Lincoln’s dilemma (“He’s like a man standin’ where two roads meet, Jeth … and one road is as dark and fearsome as the other; there ain’t a choice between the two, and yet a choice has to be made” – Chapter 1, p. 18) sets the moral tone for the novel’s treatment of the civil war. Hunt suggests that neither side, the North or the South, is entirely right or entirely wrong. The only certainty is that war is destructive and results in bloodshed. Those who bang the drum for war – Tom and Eb Creighton – are revealed in the course of the novel’s events to be naïve and misguided. Tom is the only Creighton son to be killed in the war, and Eb deserts because he finds he cannot deal with the reality of the battlefield.
The moral dilemma faced by the President of whether or not to go to war is paralleled in the novel by the incident several years previous, the killing of Mary Creighton. Like those who now wish for war, Matt’s vengeful neighbors want to hunt down Travis Burdow and hang him. Matt Creighton, determined to be fair even in the face of his personal tragedy, talks them out of revenge. In his reluctance to take recourse to bloodshed, Matt becomes a forerunner to President Lincoln. Though Jethro is at present impatient with both men’s attitudes, he comes to see their wisdom as he matures and discovers more about life.
In fact, Jethro comes to owe his own life to his father’s merciful attitude to the Burdow family. An angry mob is offended by Bill Creighton’s decision to fight for the South and one of them attacks Jethro (as Bill’s brother) as he is returning home from town. But Dave Burdow, Travis’s father, anticipates the attack and saves Jethro’s life. Dave returns Matt’s act of kindness. The lesson is that reacting to violence and bloodshed with more violence only perpetuates suffering, whereas reacting with fairness and mercy can end a cycle of violence and replace it with harmony and cooperation.