By Bobbie Anne Mason
368 pp. Random House. $26
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Reviewed by Rita Giordano
It would be easy to say Bobbie Ann Mason's new novel is about coming to terms with the past. It is, but it is also much more.
The Girl in the Blue Beret is one man's journey to find people from his past that leads him to the self he unwittingly left behind.
Mason's storytelling manages to juggle two contrasting realities, to rich effect. This book is a bighearted story about a closed-hearted man, a hero in the eyes of others who is haunted by a failure. It is about humanity in the midst of depravity and fear. Ultimately, you might say, it is a book about the persistence of hope, even when hope is furthest from one's mind.
When we first meet Marshall Stone, it is 1980. He is standing in the Belgian field where German gunfire brought down his plane in 1944. Some of the villagers who helped him and his surviving crew have come to the field to see the returning American. When his tears start, he is shocked and embarrassed.
"He was alarmed by his emotion," Mason writes.
Stone seems to have spent his life in retreat from his emotions. Now he finds himself adrift. His wife, Loretta, died two years before. After a career as a commercial pilot, he is turning 60 and is being forced to retire. He has two grown children, but he was an aloof father, jetting around the world, leaving the parenting to Loretta.
To his wife and the Europeans who helped him evade the Germans those many years before and with whom he has long lost touch, Stone was a hero. Still, he has never gotten over the disappointment and shame that his bomber-pilot career was cut short.
But something inside him breaks loose with his return to the Belgian field. With nothing holding him down, he had decided to let his son house-sit in suburban New Jersey while he moved to Paris to try to find the people who risked their lives to help him those many years ago.
Two people in particular stand out in his memory. One is Robert, the daring young Frenchman who took great risks for the sake of the Resistance.
The other is the girl in the blue beret, Annette, the older daughter of the Vallon family, who hid him in its Paris home. She was his guide in Paris, something he found somewhat humiliating when he was 23. But now he sees it differently. Annette had been just a schoolgirl, "but she had bravely battled the Nazis, to aid high-and-mighty, grounded, hapless Americans like him," Mason writes. "He didn't know if she was still alive."
Stone sets off to find out.
Inspired by the World War II experiences of Mason's late father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, The Girl in the Blue Beret moves back and forth between 1944 and 1980. Mason leads us skillfully from the young, would-be hotshot, who doesn't look back, to the shut-down older man, who slowly finds his eyes being opened to what his survival and that of his fellow downed fliers cost the French Resistance workers who helped them. As he does, we see his heart beginning to stir to the possibilities of life.
For this is not a story about guilt or blame. Rather, Mason honors the death-camp prisoners who survived the unspeakable with their humanity somehow still intact as she sheds light on a less-known aspect of Nazi brutality.
That said, some of the plot turns are fairly predictable. The story may engross you from beginning to end, but not much is likely to surprise you after a point.
But Mason, whose best-known novel is In Country, about the Vietnam War, is a humane writer. She treats her characters kindly, even if time and the world have not. It is a book that may leave you with a wistful smile.
After all, sometimes we can all use a little hope.