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The protagonist is Jethro Creighton, a boy struggling with the responsibilities of manhood and the uncertainties of war. He is forced to try to understand loss on many levels. He loses a sister in a tragic wagon accident, loses his teacher and friend, Shadrach, to the Union war effort, loses his brother, Bill, to the Southern war effort and estrangement from family and friends, another brother, Tom, to a Confederate bullet, and his beloved President Lincoln to an assassin’s bullet. It all translates into a loss of innocence and coming of age in one of the most transformational periods of American history.
There is no particular character that plays the role of the antagonist. Rather, the time in history, the American Civil War, provides the conflict. Jethro must contend with the way it affects his family and the country. His brothers, his cousin, and his best friend join the war leaving Jethro to wrestle the physical, social and emotional challenges the war brings.
As the war escalates, battles are won and lost, the perception of who is the victor constantly wavering. The story climaxes as the war climaxes. The battles of Gettysburg and Vicksburg begin the trend toward Union triumph. Then with Sherman’s success in Georgia and South Carolina the momentum carries the Union to victory.
Lincoln is reelected and the war ends. Amnesty is granted to Southerners, as brothers, sons and fathers return home. But peace is not a “perfect pearl.” Lincoln is assassinated and Jethro, “schooled as he was in the philosophy of men who work the soil” to accept twists of fate, could not contain his grief. It is not until Shadrach and Jenny return offering to bring Jethro home with them to study that his pain is lifted.