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SHORT PLOT/CHAPTER SUMMARY (Synopsis)
In April 1861, Ellen Creighton and her son Jethro are working the family farm in southern Illinois. Ellen is weighed down with worry. The entire county feels the tension of impending war. People are wondering if Lincoln will ever declare war. Then, Shadrach Yale, the local schoolteacher and Jethro’s friend, comes with news that the Confederates have fired on Fort Sumter. Young Jethro is excited about the pageantry of war, but soon learns the harsh reality as his brothers, his cousin, and his teacher go off to fight. Bill, Jethro’s favorite brother, decides to fight for the South.
Jethro is asked to go to Newton, fifteen miles away, to make some sales and purchases. He is proud that his parents are trusting him to take on this manly responsibility. At the town store he meets men that disapprove of Jethro’s support for his brother Bill, who they perceive as a traitor. One man is particularly threatening, hinting that Jethro could come to harm. Jethro also meets Ross Milton, editor of the town newspaper, who defends Jethro and takes him to a restaurant for dinner. This begins a lasting friendship.
On the way home, Dave Burdow, the father of the boy who caused Jethro’s sister Mary’s death, stops Jethro’s wagon and climbs aboard. Jethro is frightened, but Burdow explains that he thinks the threatening man from town is waiting along the road. When the man appears and scares Jethro’s horses, Dave Burdow saves Jethro by keeping control of the team. He then allows Jethro to continue on alone.
When Jethro arrives home the family is frightened and worried. Matt Creighton, Jethro’s father, wants to go to town to confront the men who threatened Jethro, but he has a heart attack on his way out. Jethro takes over the farm chores with his sister, Jenny. That spring, the men from the town store terrorize the Creightons, burning down the barn and putting coal oil in the well. Neighbors and friends come to help. Then the Creightons find out that their son Tom has been killed in the war. Ross Milton publishes a letter in his paper addressed to the men who have been threatening the Creightons saying that the Creightons have suffered and lost enough and that the men involved are actually cowards who have done nothing for the cause of the war.
Meanwhile, the war is going on and on, with no indication of a victor or an end. By the end of 1862, soldiers and citizens alike have lost faith. There are mass desertions, one such deserter being Jethro’s cousin, Eb Carron. Jethro discovers Eb hiding in the brush near the farm. He secretly brings him food and blankets, but Jethro cannot figure out whether the right thing is to turn Eb in or bring him home, putting the family at risk from the Federal Registrars. Jethro decides to write to President Lincoln for advice. The President writes a compassionate response and tells Jethro that all deserters will be pardoned if they rejoin their regiments.
Finally, there is a turning point in the war. The Union achieves victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. However, Shadrach Yale was severely wounded in battle. Jenny, accompanied by Ross Milton, goes to Washington to see Shad whom she loves. He eventually recovers and Matt gives Jenny permission to marry.
That winter, the family receives a letter from John, Jethro’s brother, saying that he has seen Bill. Bill has been taken as a prisoner by John’s unit and upon seeing each other, the two are as brothers once more. John tells Bill all the news of the family and Bill wants John to tell the family that he was not at Pittsburgh Landing where Tom had been killed. It was not his bullet that shot his brother.
In 1865, Sherman and his army pillage the South and cut off Confederate supplies. The union army is victorious and the terms of peace are signed. Ross Milton cautions Jethro that peace will not be “a perfect pearl.” Milton’s words ring true when President Lincoln is assassinated. Jethro grieves until Shadrach and Jenny return home. They offer to take Jethro to live with them and study. The novel ends hopeful for the future.