I sometimes have to be talked into reading World War II fiction. It is perhaps too easy to dismiss the topic, thinking we've heard it all before. But when one of my favorite authors, Bobbie Ann Mason, came out with The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, 2011), I stepped up to the challenge, and am here to report it was well worth the effort. I felt the same way last year when I read The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (Knopf, 2010), a title included on Texas Library Association's 2011 Lariat List. Both seduced me with their Parisian atmosphere and brooding, troubled characters.
Come to think of it, I've probably learned more about World War II from fiction than from reading history. Maybe some of that knowledge is a little less than factual, but I'd like to think I've gone deep into the whole worrisome gestalt of the time period and gained both compassion and insight. One of my library customers, a World War II vet, read nothing but World War II books for the twenty-something years I was privileged to be his librarian, and sometimes he shared small remembrances of the war with me. Also I will never forget a Holocaust Museum Houston program we hosted at the library where a Holocaust survivor came to tell us his story of concentration camp survival and release.
Mason's The Girl in the Blue Beret was inspired by the wartime experience of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings. The novel closes with a selected bibliography as well as acknowledgements to the many experts and survivors she interviewed and corresponded with during the course of writing the novel. Although I'm no authority, the novel felt extremely authentic and well researched. It took me awhile to warm to retired jumbo jet pilot Marshall Stone, the novel's main character, but I felt interested in his quest to return to France and bind up the loose ends left hanging for decades since the wartime when his B-17 was shot down and crash-landed in Belgium near Nazi-occupied France.
Stone and his surviving crew members were hidden and helped by members of the French Resistance. He especially recalls a teen-aged school girl named Annette, who wore a blue beret and led him around Paris. Her family hid and helped many such Americans, forging false identification papers for them, making sure they were guided across the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. When Marshall finds Annette, now a widow, the whole tone of the novel deepens and finds sure ground. The back story of what happened to Annette's family and other brave members of the Resistance who helped Marshall and others, brings all the barbarity of the war into sharp focus. Marshall will be forever changed by what he learns from Annette and others. He realizes how little he really knew back then when he was just another cocky flyboy. "He had been ignorant. Maybe he had never learned anything truly important until these last few days."
Reading The Girl in the Blue Beret, we are witness to all that was horrible and all that was heroic from that time in occupied Europe. Annette shrugs it off, but I for one, was immensely moved by both her story and unforgettable spirit. Bobbie Ann Mason blew me away back in 1985 with her Vietnam War-related novel, In Country, and she's done it again with The Girl in the Blue Beret, and for that I am thankful.