Those of you who regularly read my “Bookin’ with Sunny” reviews must be aware of my near obsession with point of view. I’m intrigued by authorial voice and the guise (or guises) through which an author chooses to tell a story. Often, too, I question how gender overtly or inadvertently affects the effectiveness of such choices. Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret seamlessly segues into this sort of critical conversation.
The Girl in the Blue Beret is filtered through the psyche of Marshall Stone, a World War II American pilot who crash-landed his bomber near the Belgium-France border. Nearly forty years later, newly retired and looking for something to occupy his time, he decides to return to France to search for those who hid him from the Nazis and aided his escape across the mountains to Spain. As I was reading about his endeavors, I found myself having trouble with his gender identity. Especially when he was recalling his past, he didn’t sound like my notion of a hotshot fly-boy. Even in the present, after a long successful career as an airline pilot, he didn’t sound plausibly male. Here is just one example of a sentence that rang untrue to my ears “. . .the view before him was vast and open, like his ardent heart.” “Ardent heart?” A female locution, I’d say, written by female author Bobbie Ann Mason. Phrases like that occur on nearly every page.
But those pages are mesmerizing. You know Marshall survives the war, but you don’t know exactly how. And you most certainly don’t know what will happen to those who aided and abetted him. His story moves between his present-day search for courageous members of the French Resistance and his past memories of being hidden from view and shuffled from house to house. Half-way through The Girl in the Blue Beret, Marshall finds a French woman whose parents sheltered him. Annette Vallon is the girl in the blue beret who squired downed pilots to safety. And here is where point of view, for me, gets critically challenging. As Annette and Marshall renew their acquaintance, they begin telling each other of their wartime experiences after they parted ways: Marshall’s trek across the mountains, the Vallon family’s ordeals after sheltering other American aviators.
In effect, the girl in the blue beret takes over the story, recounting details of a wartime occupation that Marshall never fully knew or understood. Annette’s compelling voice rings absolutely true. I believed every word she spoke and I most definitely believed her gender. She especially emphasized how the women cooperated in times of stress, how they shared their meager rations and how they comforted each other. Marshall’s recollections of his interactions with fellow pilots and his dealings with the other downed members of his crew seemed superficial when compared with Annette’s passionate remembrances of women coalescing. Thus, The Girl in the Blue Beret provides two almost textbook examples of gendered points of view: Annette’s highly animated female narration versus Marshall’s almost asexual internalization.
Bobbie Ann Mason wanted to tell Marshall’s story because her own father-in-law was a downed World War II pilot who vaguely remembered a girl guide wearing something blue. Mason’s imagination took over from there. The result is a gripping novel of the Nazi occupation that, despite my professorial reservations, I enthusiastically recommend. (And trivial pursuers will relish unearthing the literary source of The Girl in the Blue Beret’s name, Annette Vallon). – Ann Ronald
Also available by Bonnie Ann Mason: In Country; Shiloh and Other Stories; Clear Springs; Feather Crowns; An Atomic Romance; Nancy Culpepper; The Girl Sleuth; Spence +Lila; Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail.
This review is startling and reminds me of another WWII story written by Moorehead – A Train in Winter. As a group of French resistance women are caught and sent to concentration camps, it is their ability to support, hide and do everything they can together to thwart the Nazi killing machines.This as opposed to the men who were sent, and only 1 survived. Of 400 some odd women, 59 survived. Their stories are incredible and the author interviews some of the survivors. That perspective is something else. Ann, try A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead. I think you will find some similarities. So now I am curious to read this account from the two perspectives.