Bobbie Ann Mason fans may be puzzled, at first, by her latest novel. The main characters in The Girl in the Blue Beret are poised and purposeful, educated and affluent. As such they have little in common with the charming, quirky, often feckless small-town types who populate her acclaimed novel In Country (1985) and her dazzling collection Shiloh and Other Stories (1982).
The writing in those early books was exquisitely lyrical — attuned to the rhythms of everyday speech and packed with funny, spot-on pop-culture references. Lovely passages likewise surface in The Girl in the Blue Beret, but Mason’s strong, idiosyncratic voice is not evident. The writing is more straightforward, the author more focused on telling her story.
And a compelling tale it is. Although The Girl in the Blue Beret is fiction, it is based on the World War II reminiscences of the author’s late father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, a bomber pilot shot down over German-occupied Belgium in 1944 and rescued by sympathetic civilians. (Rawlings eventually settled in suburban New York; he died in 2004.)
When the novel begins, it’s 1980 and Marshall Stone is leaving his job as a commercial airline pilot — grounded on his 60th birthday by mandatory retirement rules. Recently widowed, and finding himself rudderless, he resolves to retrace his wartime route from the Belgian village where he crash-landed to Paris, where he was sheltered by a French family active in the Resistance. Marshall hopes to find the people who helped and hid him along the way — notably, the teenage girl who was his Paris contact, and who met him along the rue de Rivoli, “her blue beret standing out like a flower against the barren winter gardens of the Tuileries.”
Mason deftly moves back and forth in time, from Marshall’s emotional reunions with his saviors to his B-17 training as a callow 23-year-old at Molesworth Airfield in England; his ill-fated mission co-piloting the Dirty Lily over enemy territory; and his alternately tedious and terrifying time in hiding. (With the help of the Resistance, he crosses the Pyrenees into Spain and is then spirited to Gibraltar and England.)
Predictably, Marshall finds the girl in the blue beret — Annette Vallon Bouyer, now a lovely, middle-aged woman living on a farm near Cognac. A former teacher, she has been widowed herself after a long marriage to a veterinarian. Romance ensues, though it is shadowed by the past, as Annette reveals to Marshall that she and her parents had been imprisoned in German concentration camps (her father did not survive).