Footsteps to Forever By R. Samual Baty
Review by Kevin Riordan
Nearly every character in this WWII novel is unfailingly and scrupulously polite, even most of the Nazis, so I shall try to behave accordingly.
Overall, Baty gives the impression that English is his second language, the first one being perhaps physics, with a somewhat stiffly structured narrative that might give new meaning to the term formulaic. Writing this novel, venturing into literature, must have been a very different challenge than he was used to in his long and varied career: academic, aeronautic and military. There are very few cultural references, in fact the only book that is mentioned seems to be a conflation of War and Punishment, or is it Crime and Peace? The setting is realistic throughout, but some situations are so idealized that one almost expects the 'pocketa pocketa' of a Walter Mitty fantasy to intrude at any moment.
He shares Dan Brown's habit of expressing nearly any internal thought in italics, and mundane actions tend to be rendered like a transcript, but it is a clear style that pays off in the action sequences.
Without summarizing the plot tiresomely, I will say that the reader follows a plucky couple of recruits into Norway to rescue an elderly physicist just as war is breaking out in Europe, and continues to learn what becomes of them and their comrades as they do their duty and move swiftly through the ranks and into the sphere of world leaders, glimpsing at least eight countries and some of the major turning points of the war. We get to meet Churchill, Roosevelt and even Charles Lindbergh, while sticking close to a courageous nurse and an ambitious pilot.
For all of the author's actual experience in WWII, the dialog has little of the slang, datedness or flavor of other writing from and of the period. Nor do we meet Shakespeare's 'soldier, full of strange oaths'; it seems closer to what you would read on inter-titles, those frames that put words to a silent movie. The characters are heartfelt, hardly cardboard, but do at times suggest pins on a big wartime map.
As the equation reaches the right side of the blackboard, things, of course, start getting a lot more complicated, as do the characters. Like solving a difficult problem, it becomes much more satisfying. With an economy of personalities, Baty manages to give us the feeling that we are looking at the whole picture of WWII, and he does so with a dignified authority.
Speaking as someone who grew up well after the war, my impressions of the 40's are inextricably tangled with the fiction and films of that decade, and is good to be reminded that Film Noir didn't really grab hold until the post-war malaise settled in. Not that foreboding, irony and the fickle finger of fate did not exist before 1945, but the chirpy, can-do optimism of this book might let you believe that.