During a dear friend’s visit she finished reading Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret and upon leaving thought I would enjoy it and left it for me to read. I had just finished Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety so although my expectation of historical fiction was high; I was also looking forward to a lighter read. Mason’s book is based on the true account of her late father-in-law’s experiences in WWII, but it’s mostly a modern day story with historical passages thrown in as the main character, Marshall, tries to come to terms with his past.
Marshall was a B-17 bomber pilot. His plane, the Dirty Lily, was shot down over Belgium during his 10th mission. He was rescued by members of the French Resistance and eventually made his way safely back to England and the U.S. Now 40 years later, forced into retirement and recently widowed, he moves to France to find those brave people that helped him.
Most of Mason’s historical passages come from published histories and interviews of WWII veterans and some from travelling to France herself and meeting with people who had been involved in the Resistance. She does a good job of letting the realness of those parts of the book stand on their own merit. She adds vivid visual details from her own time there that bring it all to life, both the past and the present.
Marshall’s search brings him closure of his long held guilt at not doing more during the war, at being finished after only 10 missions, at the loss of the crew members that didn’t survive the crash or ended up in POW camps. It also possibly brings him a second chance at love.
The most impactful part of Mason’s novel is the bravery and selflessness of the Resistance fighters. Young people who had to grow up too fast taking on adult responsibilities and average families already destitute by the war who risked their lives to protect bravado young Allied soldiers. Soldiers who they would harrowingly get back to safety while the French stayed under Nazi Occupation, we’re caught and executed, sent to labor camps or Holocaust camps where they endured well documented horrors. Unlike soldiers taken prisoner during the war, Geneva Convention rules didn’t apply to the captured French Resistance fighters.
Mason’s treatment of both the soldiers and the Resistance fighters in the novel is heartfelt and respectful of what they went through and how utterly it shaped their lives and personas in the modern day parts of the story. Her writing is direct with descriptive journeys and not a lot of sentimentality, stoic much like the way Marshall is portrayed. This is simply a story that needed telling and any frivolity would have detracted from it. Sometimes that’s exactly what a good book does.