Slowly, parallels emerge between The Girl in the Blue Beret and In Country, Mason’s deeply felt novel featuring an adrift and disillusioned Vietnam vet, Emmett Smith. Marshall, though outwardly successful, feels defeated by his wartime experience too — in particular his failure to save the Dirty Lily. No matter that Emmet was vilified when he returned from Vietnam, whereas Marshall was embraced; both men have been damaged. But both find redemption once they fully confront the demons of the past.
Bobbie Ann Mason never gets fully inside the heads of her Blue Beret characters. Perhaps she felt hamstrung by her desire to honor her father-in-law’s extraordinary story. Or maybe it’s because she’s so far removed from her literary comfort zone — rural Kentucky, where she was raised and which she captured so vividly in her early work.
Still, there is plenty to admire, and enjoy, in The Girl in the Blue Beret. Here, for example, is Mason on Marshall’s passion for flying: “He loved racing down the runway…easing back the yoke, feeling the wings lifting. A plane wanted to fly; takeoffs were its natural bent. You trusted yourself to the machine. You were the machine.” About his barely suppressed rage at being forced from his job, she writes, “Retirement would be like the enforced passivity he had endured during the war, after the crash landing. Then, he was a caged bird.”
Especially suspenseful — and harrowing — is the description of the Dirty Lily’s final flight. Indeed, The Girl in the Blue Beret is a page-turner, filled with sudden reverses and narrow escapes. It is also an act of remembrance and a tribute — not only to Allied airmen like the author’s father-in-law, but to the members of the French Resistance. Given the degree of Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis, it’s gratifying to be reminded of the true French patriots who showed such valor in the face of unfathomable evil.
Evelyn Renold is a writer and editorial consultant in New York.