by Bobbie Ann Mason
(Random House: 352 pp., $26.)
Stories of the French Resistance have history’s blessing. Impossibly romantic, filled to the brim with courage and selflessness, they rise above the bleak condemnation of human nature that is the predominant legacy of all wars, perhaps especially World War II. We hear them and think there might, there just might, be such a thing as heroes.
This new novel of Bobbie Ann Mason’s, set in the present but also during WWII, is full of isotherms; layers of warm and cold, truth and fiction that weave and blend throughout. A reader knows, from the start, that the story of Marshall Stone, retired commercial jet pilot, co-captain of a B-17 bomber in the Allied forces in WWII is, at least in part, someone’s true story. How do we know this? First, it is the delicate deference, the formality, the distance and respect Mason shows her main character. Second, it is the precision, not just in terms of technical details about planes and flight and strategy during the war (and after as a 747 captain) but in the descriptions of Marshall’s inner life—his deep love of flying—the specific moments an elderly pilot might remember and hold dear. All the “book learning” (as my grandmother used to call it), all the research in the world could not possibly result in the sheer heat generated by Marshall’s love of flying and by his sense of guilt, of emptiness as he tries to piece together the pivotal chapter of his life. (We read in the Acknowledgments in the end, long after we have stopped caring about silly distinctions like fact and fiction, that the novel was “inspired by the World War II experience of my father-in-law, Barney Rawlings (1920-2004)” (p348) without whose existence, whose very living to tell the tale, Mason’s husband would not exist.)
Marshall’s wife has died, his children are grown and the FAA insists that pilots must retire on their sixtieth birthday. He is left with memories, but the one that consumes him is the moment in January, 1944, when he took control of the B-17 bomber, the Dirty Lilly, from his pilot (wounded and killed by German bullets) and landed the million dollar plane in a Belgian field. Allied airmen landing in occupied Europe were guided to safety by various resistance networks. In Marshall’s case, members of the Bourgogne network, led (also in real life) by Georges Broussine (1918-2001), passed him from family to family, from Chauny, to Paris and over the Pyrenees into Spain, where he was processed through to England and sent home to the U.S. to marry and raise a family in New Jersey.
Marshall, whose life sped past in a blur, is now mortified that he never went back to Belgium and France to find the people who saved his life. He remembers the family that ushered him from the field, the burning plane and the approaching Germans, including their son, Nicolas Albert, then 12, to whom he gave his leather jacket. (Marshall named his own son Albert after the family that sheltered him for six weeks at inconceivable personal risk.) He remembers a farmhouse full of women where he hid in a tiny room behind an armoir, a young resistant named Robert who led him from Paris to Spain, and a young woman in a blue beret who took him from the Paris train station (Gare du Nord) to her family’s home where he prepared for his journey over the Pyrenees. “The agent’s directions had been precise. Find the girl in the blue beret. She will have a timetable and a leather school bag.” (p12)
Mason is very good at capturing the fog of action that carries life along in its powerful current. During his escape and for decades after, Marshall does not know how to feel about his past. “He spoke as if he were talking about a distant event that did not concern himself.” (p91) “Pilots sat far removed from consequences, anyway. Bombs didn’t really miss their targets and kill children at a skating rink, or dismember mothers in a park. You didn’t see bodies flying apart or hear the shrieks. You flew along, dropped your load, and flew away.” (p54)
And so the novel becomes the story of an awakening. Marshall decides to return to France to find the people who saved his life. He communicates with members of the B-17’s crew who are still alive, and begins to piece together memories with streets and towns and names (a task made difficult by the fact that that members of the resistance used false names). He finds that many of the people he talks to do not want to remember: “All of France has amnesia,” (p96) Nicola’s mother, Gisele, tells him after he finds the Albert family. “What causes this? Such barbarity. A war. All these horrors, when men sink lower than beasts. How did it happen? Can it happen again?” Nicola’s father, Pierre says. “But we must tell. We must tell.” (p 112)
In a little village near Cognac, Marshall finds Annette, the girl in the blue beret. She is in her fifties and recently widowed. From Annette, he hears the terrible story of how her family was punished for helping the Allied airmen. It is a brutal story, set in the camps: Ravensbruck and Buchenwald. The damage wrought on those who survived explains their reticence to speak.
“The Girl in the Blue Beret” is the story of how Marshall’s memories are fleshed out, become human as he reconnects with the people he met in 1944, hence the novel’s isotherms. Marshall is a gentle, decent man, but a chill wind blows through his unprocessed life. In the beginning, his memories are little more than war stories, told over and over. As the novel fills in the blanks, as Marshall confronts his own shame and fear to hear the stories from the people whose lives intersected his own, you feel him expand as a character, as a human being.
Imagine, for a moment, the true creativity involved in this writing: blowing life into one man’s memories, adding dimension as a sculptor might to a piece of clay.