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Nine-year-old Jethro is a boy, his mother’s helper, for the first April of the novel. The start of the war is the start of his accelerated transition from boy to man. He is the only son who does not go off to war and is left to completely take over the responsibilities of the farm and the family, especially after his father experiences a heart attack. He follows the political and strategic aspects of the war through newspaper stories, conversations, and letters from his brothers and cousin who are fighting. These same letters also involve Jethro in the emotional aspects of the war as he reads of the horrors and tries to shield his family from the devastation. The death of President Lincoln, Jethro’s hero, all but undoes the boy, until the return of his friend and teacher, Shadrach Yale, and his dear sister, Jenny, bring back hope that the future holds promise. By the end of the book, Jethro has lost his innocence, but gained the experience and understanding of manhood.
Jenny is Jethro’s fourteen-year-old sister and his only sibling at home. The two are constant companions and grow to know each other’s feelings as they work the farm side by side and talk about the war. They both are anxious for the safe return of Jenny’s love and Jethro’s friend and teacher, Shadrach Yale. Jenny is resolute and mature beyond her years, which is not unusual for a young woman of the times, but becomes even more so as she deals with the war and eventually marries Shad. It is the sight of her, returned from Washington D.C., that lifts the gloom from the April of Lincoln’s death for Jethro.
As Jethro’s teacher and close friend, Shad encourages Jethro’s reading and speaking, and his understanding of the war. He and Jethro spend an introspective night as “two bachelors” prior to Shadrach leaving for the war. His attitude, sadness at leaving, and uncertainty of return, contrast the confident eagerness of Jethro’s brother, Tom and cousin, Eb. Jethro and Jenny miss him terribly, but the insight he imparted helps them understand and cope with “the whims of fate”. Shadrach is seriously wounded and Jenny nurses him back to health. The two get married and when they return to the farm they offer to have Jethro live with them to continue his studies.
Like Shadrach Yale, Ross Milton sees great potential in Jethro. Milton picks up where Shad left off in the education and mentoring of the boy. He first meets Jethro in Newton where Milton defends the Creighton family on Jethro’s behalf. From that point on he is a constant source of support and comfort to the Creightons and a source of knowledge and perspective for Jethro. He even goes so far as to accompany Jenny to Washington D.C. to be at Shadrach’s side. When he returns he shares with Jethro the difficult concept that peace will not be a “perfect pearl”, but also shares his confidence and hope that Lincoln will have the power to assure that “peace will not be a mockery.”