Books: Bobbie Ann Mason’s ‘The Girl in the Blue Beret’

Ron Charles
Editor, Book World June 28, 2011

Bobbie Ann Mason has long been considered one of the finest writers of regional fiction — Kentucky is her home and inspiration — but her affecting new novel takes place in France, and she’s just as comfortable and insightful there. Based on the experiences of her late father-in-law, “The Girl in the Blue Beret” describes the tense adventures of a U.S. airman shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe in 1944. What distinguishes the novel, though, is how tenderly Mason nests that World War II escape within the story of an airline pilot forced to retire in 1980.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy. View Archive

After decades of flying jumbo jets, Marshall Stone finds himself widowed, grounded and unemployed, a stark break that blows him back to consider the crash landing of his B-17 bomber that effectively ended his military career when he was just 23. “In the years after,” Mason writes, “he didn’t probe into the aftermath. He lived another life.” But when airline regulations and his wife’s death bring that long domestic chapter to a close, Marshall decides to visit the scarred field in Belgium and “confront his past failure,” back when he was a young lieutenant with a clear and noble purpose. What follows is the profound story of an emotionally aloof retiree who must finally learn to stop flying above everything and embrace the people on the ground who saved his life.

But this is as much a historical search as a psychological one, and Mason has drawn the details of her downed airman’s ordeal from a range of published histories and interviews, helpfully listed in the back. As an airman behind enemy lines before the D-Day assault, Marshall was entirely at the mercy of civilians who could betray him for a handsome reward or shelter him at risk to their own lives. And everything about him confessed his Americanness: He was too tall, his accent was laughable, he held his cigarettes wrong, and his boots left a little stencil wherever he walked: “USA.” Alternately bored and terrified, he was hidden away in cupboards by sympathetic mothers and shuffled along to Spain by members of the Resistance, passed like a deadly, precious package through the homes of people he could never properly thank or even fully appreciate.

Mason, who won the PEN/Hemingway Award for her first collection of stories in 1983, devotes much of this novel to Marshall’s search for those brave patriots who helped him. The records are obscured by time and disorganized by an impenetrable layer of old code names. “He was wandering through a land of ghosts,” Mason writes, “slivers of memory, clues floating like summer midges.”

What’s more, so much history has fallen down the space between survivors who don’t wish to remember that horror and young people who don’t care about it. Those crumbling records slow Marshall’s progress considerably, and they affect the novel’s pacing, too, producing a story that’s luxuriously contemplative, sustained by the depth of Mason’s sympathy for this old flier. What does it really mean to be a hero? Marshall wonders, contrasting his own panicked behavior after the crash with the actions of those who escorted him right past German guards on the streets of Paris.

And what a stirring tribute to the Resistance this novel is, along with a heartfelt salute to the ordinary women and even girls who sprinkled sand in the gears of Hitler’s army, fighting back in innumerable subtle ways against the Occupation. As Marshall continues his search, he talks with teachers who sheltered parachutists who dropped in the schoolyard, teenagers who smooched with Yanks to throw off street guards, and mothers who sewed Parisian disguises and printed fake ID papers — all for young soldiers who had little sense of the risks their hosts were taking.

Mason’s most elegant move is the way she interlaces Marshall’s patient search for those who helped him with adrenaline-filled reenactments of the plane crash, his escape from German soldiers and then those weeks of hiding. These are exciting scenes, told first in shattering snippets that eventually coalesce as Marshall recalls more and more of what happened to him. It’s a masterly technique that re-creates the creaky workings of memory along with the frightening adventure of a razor-thin escape.

Significantly, the most harrowing moments of this novel belong not to Marshall but to those French women who helped him and paid for their bravery with time in German work camps. Mason honors those victims with a clear-eyed, starkly personal portrayal of what they endured even beyond the brutal labor: systematic rape, infanticide, death marches and shootings. “It’s only becoming real to me now,” Marshall says, and many readers are likely to feel the same way about this lesser-known facet of the Nazi program.

Such arresting, gory history is easy to overplay, of course — what the critic Melvin Bukiet once dismissed as Holocaust porn. But Mason is far more interested in the grace and resilience of these prisoners than in the cruelty of their tormentors. “There was so little food,” one survivor tells Marshall, “that to save your life you had to steal; to save your humanity you had to share.” In the act of returning to those courageous women and conveying his long-delayed gratitude, Marshall discovers the depth of his own humanity, too.

Mason’s fans know that she has addressed the lingering effects of war before. Her first novel, “In Country” from 1985, dealt with the shadow of Vietnam. (A movie version starring Bruce Willis and Emily Lloyd appeared a few years later.) World War II was a very different kind of war, of course, with cleaner motives and a far more definite conclusion. But once again, Mason has plumbed the moral dimensions of national conflict in the lives of individual participants and produced a deeply moving, relevant novel.

Charles is The Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.

THE GIRL IN THE BLUE BERET

By Bobbie Ann Mason

Random House. 352 pp. $26

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