First a Torch by Richard Baker (Ink and Lens, Ltd., 488 pp., $22, paper) is
a novel of the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. This large book reminds this reader of great American novels of sweep and scope by the likes of John Dos Passos and James Jones. But it is more than that.
It is a panoramic novel that carefully and thoroughly introduces us to the several characters that we will meet much later at Dien Bien Phu, and there will be surprises I won’t spoil. By the time we meet these characters again, we know them and care about them, so we will be hit hard by the high cost of war.
Richard Baker served in the Army in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division Band, and was twice wounded while on patrol. Baker today lives part-time in Hanoi, which contributes to the remarkably even-handedness with which he portrays the other side, the Viet Minh.
I’ve read many books on the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and this fine novel ranks at the top of the heap. Baker has done his research and created flesh and blood characters who cause us to keep turning the pages in this blockbuster of a novel.