Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review of Bobbie Ann Mason's The Girl in the Blue Beret


Bobbie Ann Mason’s new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret is a richly detailed and insightful look at the human capacity to -- if not recover, so much, then to soldier on after the most astonishing adversity, told through the eyes of a WWII aviator who sets out to retrace his steps in the hands of the resistance network which smuggled him out of occupied France after his bomber went down in Belgium. Marshall seeks to reconnect, where possible, with the surviving members of that network after retiring as a commercial pilot. Widowed, with his two children grown and on their own, he is rootless, and feels himself drawn back to the scene of his escape.

There is a phenomenon among survivors of war that makes the memories they have of their time in battle or survival far more vivid than those of their ordinary lives; it is why many men who survived the trauma of a combat tour in Viet-Nam signed up for another, and it is clear that, for Marshall (a deliberately chosen name, one suspects, for its resonance with that of General, and later Secretary of State, George C. Marshall) this is still the case.

But Bobbie Ann Mason is such a writer’s writer that her work is never what it simply appears to be on the surface. Like the work of Vladimir Nabokov, on whose work she wrote her graduate thesis, the subtle intricacies begin way below the visible layer.

What we have here, in addition to being an exceptionally well-researched and absorbing story, is, in fact the story of Odysseus some twenty-five years after his return to Ithaca.

In this reading, time has passed: faithful Penelope has died, Telemachus, never having bonded with his father, has drifted away (Marshall also has a daughter who is even less visibly a part of Marshall’s life), and Marshall/Odysseus remembers the horrors of the war and his remarkable journey home, but he also remembers his sojourn with Circe/Calypso/Nausicaa, in this case, Annette, the young member of the French resistance — the girl in the blue beret of the title — who is instrumental in his rescue, with great fondness, more fondness, perhaps, than he had felt at the time, when all he had wanted was to return home safely.

Annette is now widowed, and, also like Marshall, with children who have grown and left the nest, and they find themselves, in the narrative “now” of the mid-1970s, free to give themselves to each other without fear of abandonment or self-recrimination.

Marshall’s interest had been piqued by one of his last trans-Atlantic flights to Europe, when he revisited the crash site in Belgium, and found, to his surprise, the son of a farmer who had helped him evade capture, and who was, Marshall learned, subsequently shot by the German occupiers. At the point that he learns this, a wave of suppressed emotion begins to push its way to the surface of his awareness.

The loss of many of his crew — like Marshall, some escaped, but they were separated — chewed, euphemistically, by the Polyphemus of Nazi brutality, has come to be re-felt, re-examined in the pastoral countryside long after. That there had been no such time for reflection that was not colored by the danger to himself and his crew after the crash until now is a measure of how far Marshal has stuffed his feelings.

Was the monstrous threat as large in reality as it had been in his memory?

Yes, the answer comes, for he begins to understand that the war had taken its toll in many much worse ways than the temporary frights and discomforts and hardships which he had suffered. Annette, herself, and her mother were both imprisoned in a labor camp and subjected to atrocities to which Annette can only obliquely refer. The family’s having been betrayed by collaborators, her father had been summarily executed at the time of her arrest. The number of women who were literally worked to death in the hard, Baltic winter, forced to work without any protection from the elements other than the street clothes in which they had been arrested, causes Marshall to reappraise his own sense of fugitive deprivation and discomfort.

The Girl in the Blue Beret draws the reader in, but the author refuses to pander to the reader’s desire to know more about her characters; they are so compelling that you might find yourself wishing it had gone on for another hundred pages.

— JB

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