One summer day we were standing on the beach, toes in the lake, watching the children, when I suddenly wondered aloud, about my toddler, "Where's Will?" At precisely that moment one of our group rose from the waves with Will, spluttering, in her arms. A moment of great drama had occurred, but by the time we knew of it, it was already over, the drowning child saved. This, in a way, is what Bobbie Ann Mason's new book is like. In it a story of great moment is recounted, but long after its moment has passed.
Inspired, the author tells us, by the experience of her father-in-law in World War II, "The Girl in the Blue Beret" tells the story of a B-17 co-pilot shot down over Belgium in 1944, then helped by the French Resistance network to escape across the Pyrenees to Spain, and then to England. This drama, however, is recounted from a distance, as the co-pilot, Marshall, widowed and forced into retirement from his job as an airline pilot in 1980, goes to France to seek out those who helped him evade the Nazis in occupied France.
In particular, Marshall is interested in finding Annette, the girl in the blue beret who guided him and whose family hid him for weeks while the network of conspirators arranged his escape. When he locates this girl, now a woman of 50 and a widow herself, a connection is made between the two, with their buried pasts, and the stories that neither has ever told finally emerge.
The result is a curious novel in which the bulk of the protagonist's life, from crash-landing to retirement, is somehow irrelevant; his wartime experience, revisited and revised through Annette's recounting, is the drama that gives his life, and this story, its meaning. That drama, though it is the stuff of so many World War II and Holocaust accounts, is no less compelling; and its telling, bringing two wounded people together, offers a very real sense of how history plays out in the most intimate of moments.
Mason has these characters, long after the drama, telling each other what happened. And if this gives the wartime business a remote quality, the rich relationship between the man and woman rediscovering each other, and their own pasts, is immediate and real, an unusual and moving story in itself.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Cornucopia, Wis.