Bobbie Ann Mason is known for her award-winning novels set in the South, including In Country and Shiloh and Other Stories. Her latest, The Girl in the Blue Beret, was inspired by her father-in-law’s World War II experiences as an aviator shot down in occupied Europe and aided by the French Resistance. Here, Mason tells us about his past, researching wartime Europe and the idea behind the blue beret.
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Do you recall the first time you heard your father-in-law talk about this part of his life?
Not really. I knew about it mostly from my husband—his father downplayed any heroics or hardship. He was an airline pilot, so he talked more about his bombing mission in the war. He took us through a B-17 bomber once at an airport, and I knew he had been shot down over Belgium during the war, but I knew little about his weeks of hiding in France until he wrote a memoir about it.
Why were you moved to write about it now?
He died in 2004, and it didn't occur to me until 2006 that there was a novel to be written. I was taking a French class, and I started wondering about his time in France during the war. I reread his memoir, and—voila!—there was a girl in a blue beret, a Resistance escort. That was the spark.
You’ve said that you tend to do “too much research.” I can imagine that was a temptation here, given the history surrounding your story?
Oh, my, I'll never stop! World War II is so interesting and so mind-boggling. At the end of most projects I am ready to box up the research and go on to something else. But I think World War II and the French Resistance will remain with me for the rest of my life, and I will continue to look for escape-and-evasion stories about downed aviators. World War II was the main event of the 20th century, and we need to keep it in sight.
A novel doesn't necessarily need a huge amount of research. The right details can convey a whole world. I did read a lot about the war, but it was equally important to go to Paris and just stare at the Eiffel Tower, or to walk down the Rue de Rivoli and try to imagine all those Nazi flags flying there during the Occupation. Or to go to the train station where the aviators were smuggled out of Paris for the unsettling journey toward the Pyrenees. Just being there, in the space and thinking about time gone by—that was how I got the novel to breathe.
Your gratitude in the acknowledgments to many French and Belgian friends suggests many adventures while researching this book.
The people I met in France and Belgium who were trying to keep memories alive for the sake of future generations were so unexpectedly welcoming to me. On several occasions I was invited to Sunday midday meals, which started with champagne and foie gras and marched through a series of spectacular courses of genuine French home cooking. This was unusual, because Sunday is a family day, but including me was a sign of their gratitude to the American aviators, even though I was so far removed. They don't want their stories to be forgotten, and I was very moved that they looked to me to help perpetuate the memories.
I imagine that you approached the research for this story with a general appreciation of the participants’ valor, which was replaced by a deepening amazement in the face of it.
I wasn't even expecting that much valor because when I went to France I didn't know what the story would be. I’d been motivated by my father-in-law's experience, but he had made light of it, so I didn't understand how harrowing his own journey had been until I read other accounts of evasion. And I knew little about the European side of it. It was indeed with deepening amazement that I discovered what the Europeans had sacrificed to help airmen to safety.
When you read about WWII, or any terrible event, it remains a bit abstract until you have some personal connection. So when I met women who had been couriers smuggling Resistance tracts on their bicycles or who’d escorted American aviators to the zoo under the noses of German officers, I did feel it personally.
And I was charmed by women in their 80s, former guides for airmen, looking back over their girlhood adventures, admitting that something about that time was a lark, laughing about the times they fooled the Germans—at such great risks to themselves! To be sure, they had painful memories, but they were resilient, and they celebrated life. I was tremendously moved by their strength and courage. And by their good spirits.
Was the girl in the blue beret real or imagined?
Many young girls worked in the escape networks that helped Allied aviators because the Germans wouldn't suspect girls. My father-in-law got a letter in 1993 from a woman who’d found his name in her mother's notebook from the war. She’d been an escort for aviators and evidently her family had helped him by forging an ID card. He barely remembered her, but he thought she had worn something blue—a scarf or a beret—as a signal. They got together that year in St. Louis at a reunion of airmen and European helpers, and then I met her in Paris in 2008. I brought her a blue beret. She wasn't sure she remembered a blue beret as a signal. So, the girl is a little bit real and a little bit imagined. I had some real-life inspiration, but the character is very much my creation.