Is it significant that I have been humming Sentimental Journey every since I finished Jill Barnett’s new World War II set novel? Probably not; I happen to be a fan of old popular music. But I think it is significant that I have been thinking about the book quite a lot and remembering other stories that I enjoyed years ago, stories set against the panorama of great events, with multiple relationships and not completely happy endings. If Barnett’s book doesn’t quite achieve the saga-like quality and intensity of those books, it comes closer than anything I have read in quite a while.
The book begins by introducing us to the men of a special operations unit who have been assigned to destroy a supply dump and airfield to help pave the way for the Allied invasion of North Africa. Lt. Colonel J.R Cassidy of the U.S. Army, Captain “Red” Walker of the U.S. Army Air Corps, and RAF Pilot Commander George “Skip” Inskip are part of an international team that specializes in doing the impossible. That the latter two don’t much like each other doesn’t impact their ability to do their job.
Sentimental Journey is the story of how these three ended up in the Libyan desert in the fall of 1942. Its structure is not narrative but rather episodic, as the author takes the reader back in time to chronicle the lives of J.R., Red and Skip and the women they love, Kitty Kincaid and Charlotte “Charley” Morrison. As such, the book does not lend itself to the usual synopsis; any attempt would result in “spoilers” which might lessen a reader’s enjoyment of the story. Hence, all the reviewer can do is describe the cast of characters.
J.R. Cassidy is a West Point graduate, the scion of wealth and privilege, a golden boy with a playboy’s reputation. Even before the United States enters the war he has gained a reputation for pulling off difficult missions, so he is the logical choice to rescue
Kitty Kincaid. Kitty is the daughter of one of America’s foremost aeronautical designers. She finds herself caught in French North Africa and is taken prisoner by the Germans who hope to use her against her father. Her rescue by J.R. and their dangerous trek through the desert to safety have all the hallmarks of a classic thriller.
Skip Inskip is the son of privilege, a member of the landed gentry, the nephew of an earl. He joins the RAF because he loves to fly, leaving behind in London his lovely wife who was his childhood sweetheart. Skip becomes one of “the few” who defend Britain against the Luftwaffe. He first finds the knowledge that he has killed his opponent disturbing, until personal tragedy overcomes his feelings and he becomes an ace, coldly determined to defeat the Germans by doing whatever it takes.
Red Walker is the son of a struggling owner of a gas station in rural Texas who has dreamed of flying but seems earthbound until one day a small plane lands on the road next to the Texaco sign. To his amazement, the pilot turns out to be a woman. Charley Morrison was raised by her barnstorming father and has been flying since childhood. When war seems imminent, Charley becomes one of the first women pilots to train to be a transport pilot in preparation to being sent to join the British women who are performing this valuable task. Red comes back into her life at this point, now himself a trained pilot in the Army Air Force. Before their budding relationship can develop, she is sent to England, where she meets Skip...
While Sentimental Journey contains romantic elements, it is clearly not a traditional romance novel. Rather, it is a war novel, a story of how World War II impacted the lives of those who fought it and lived through it. There are compelling descriptions of combat, especially air combat. There is triumph, but there is also tragedy.
I read Sentimental Journey essentially in one sitting which means the book gets four hearts. It is not without flaws. There are a few historical improbabilities which I imagine only someone who has taught courses on World War II would notice. The author’s use of some very, very short chapters made the story seem a bit choppy at times. And, unlike many novels, Sentimental Journey would probably have been better if it were about fifty pages longer.
Jill Barnett is best known for her light and amusing historical romances. Sentimental Journey is nothing like her previous books. It is an ambitious and often compelling story of individuals caught up in the greatest event in the history of the world. Against this background, Barnett has crafted an enjoyable and often moving story. She deserves both credit and readers for daring to be different.