Whenever I see that a war movie is coming out I get my hopes up. I live in hope that the women will be playing active roles, not just waiting for the men to finish their heroics. Courage Under Fire with Meg Ryan (though I thought she was wrong for the part) was a favorite because Meg’s character, for good or bad, actively participates as a soldier. Same with G. I. Jane. Women who are involved in the adventure are just more interesting. That’s what made the first two thirds of Sentimental Journey so engrossing for me. This hardcover debut is more of an immersion into two years in the lives of several women and men caught up in the events of WWII than it is a romance (this is your only warning).
We open in 1942 in the Libyan Desert where three soldiers are working with a special squad to infiltrate and destroy Rommel’s compound. If this were a war movie the camera would zoom in first on Lt. Colonel J.R. Cassidy, the scion of a wealthy New England family, adventurous, intelligent and charming. Scan to Captain Red Walker, country boy who hoped to find there was more to life then his small Texas town could offer. And finally the shot would end with British Flying Ace George “Skip” Inskip, world-weary and jaded after a tragedy destroyed his happiness.
After those few flashes of film we’d flashback a year and begin the introductions of the women. They match the men in strength and courage and are very much the heart of the book. Kitty Kincaid is the daughter of an American scientist who is of great interest to the Nazis. When she’s kidnapped by the Germans, she participates in her own rescue when J.R. Cassidy arrives to help. The two end up on a cross-country trip across North Africa. Their journey is fraught with danger and thoroughly wonderful. Kitty works just as hard as Cassidy on the trek and he is irresistibly drawn to this very intelligent, resourceful woman.
Red’s sights fall on pilot Charlotte “Charley” Morrison. She’s a barnstormer’s daughter who dropped into his life in Texas then left it again almost as quickly when she left for England to help ferry planes for the Air Force. And Skip is married to a woman he’s known all his life and deeply loves – Greer. Some of the only wince-inducing moments of the book happen in the relationship between Skip and Greer, which occasionally slips into melodrama.
The men and women get equal time and with a few minor exceptions, Ms. Barnett draws pictures for us of who these people are and why they make the choices they do. This is a big book but there are relatively few supporting players. This makes sense because the six main characters need their space. What disappointed me was how the women become less and less of a presence as the book progressed. Their dynamism is what holds the reader, but by book’s end they’ve literally become the women who have to wait for the men. The men continue the heroics and the women hope they come back alive. Certainly WWII was not a war where women could actively participate in the fighting, but the earlier parts of the book proved they could participate in other ways.
Funny thing, once the relationships got serious the women’s role in the book diminished. Perhaps there’s an At the Back Fence. I don’t know, but it did remind me of all those war movies that didn’t appeal, including that recent epic Pearl Harbor . Still, this is a book I can recommend, especially for readers who enjoy war stories – and the action and heroism that goes along with them.