'The Girl in the Blue Beret': Bobbie Ann Mason crafts a moving novel from war memories and regrets
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Many of us facing our advancing years want to go back to the happy days of our youth, find the old neighborhood, reconnect with college buddies, relive the good times.
But Marshall Stone, a recent widower, forced to retire at 60 from his job flying commercial airlines, wants to return to the worst moment in his life: crash-landing The Dirty Lily, a World War II B-17 bomber, into a field in Belgium.
Seeing the plane come down, farmers and their families rushed to help.
Some crew members were dead, others badly wounded, taken to a hospital and then held as prisoners of war. But those who could walk were urged to flee before the Germans arrived.
Marshall was one of those, and eventually, with the aid of the French Resistance, made his way back to England, then home to the United States.
Thirty-seven years later at loose-ends, he decides to go back to France and find the people who helped him escape, to pay his proper respects for all they did.
Living in a rented flat, he seeks the connections to his past. He has much time for memories, reflection and regrets, not only about the war, but also of the man he became after his escape.
His career allowed him the joy of flying but distanced him from his family. His wife "ran the marriage, the home, the children, while he flew away" (and cheated on her in those faraway places).
Marshall's children "rolled down the sidewalk as though he were invisible." And he's humiliated that it took him this long to thank the people who saved his life.
Bit by bit he finds some of those who gave him shelter, food, a path to follow. But two people in particular are harder to locate:
Robert, a boy on a bike who seemed to be an important member of the Resistance, and Annette -- the girl in the blue beret.
Bobbie Ann Mason, an award-winning author of six works of fiction, including "In Country" and "Shiloh and Other Stories," once again writes with care and grace, creating fully developed, complicated characters that readers will care for and remember long after finishing the book.
Inspired by her father-in-law's wartime experience, this novel at all times feels honest and real and offers a compelling story about the French Resistance.
But the first half of the story works exactly as memories do, the connections of a linear path missing until the end when we can see it all as a whole.
At 60, Marshall brings wisdom -- and it's important that we know him as an adult -- but the mechanism of so many memories makes for a jumpy read. And we know how Marshall turned out, so it also lacks some tension.
It is the title, at times, that pulls at us, knowing that we must eventually meet "The Girl With the Blue Beret."
Of course, we do, and that's when Ms. Mason finds the true power of great fiction. Annette will break your heart.
First Published June 26, 2011 12:00 am