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).
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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.