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A Letter from Bobbie Ann Mason, author of THE GIRL IN THE BLUE BERET

Monday, July 16th, 2012

Bobbie Ann Mason’s novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (now in paperback), is one of those memorable books that not only tells a compelling story, but also is full of historical facts that stick with you long after you finish the last chapter. This mix of truth and fiction lends itself to hours of book club conversation, and has led many people to research their own family histories further. In this letter to readers, Bobbie Ann shares some of the moving responses she’s gotten from readers of The Girl in the Blue Beret.

Girl in Blue BeretDear Readers,

I have heard from many readers since The Girl in the Blue Beret came out. The story of my airline pilot, former B-17 bomber pilot Marshall Stone, on his search to find the people who helped him during World War II has struck a chord. Readers have told me about their uncles and fathers and grandfathers who were in the war but never said much about it. I sense an urgent desire to know more about the World War II era.
A friend of a friend gave Blue Beret to a woman whose husband had died recently. The husband, Bob, was very much like Marshall: retired pilot, WWII aviator, taciturn. She said, “Reading it was like having Bob back again.”

A sampling of some of the letters from readers:
• “This is such a touching and powerful novel. I’m sorry so much of W.W. II history is being lost. It is amazing to learn the details of the courage of the French people who risked or gave their lives to rescue the aviators. I was a little girl during the war, and we were never told much of this after the war was over.”
• “Our mother was a 15 year old Parisian girl in June of 1940 and our father an American soldier 1943-1946 who met and have their own love story from WWII. Your book has truly been a treasure helping to look into the lives, sights and events that surrounded our parents during their youth. Our mother died in Feb 2011 and reading your book has brought many jewels to me in the strengths that I saw in my Mom and tried to understand as she put a very difficult time in her life behind her, yet…share her history.”
• “My father served in France in the army and as I have grown older (58 now) I have more curiosity about it. He passed away years ago so I cannot ask him. Your book set up such a scene in my mind. Even though some parts were very hard to read, I think it is good to know what happened.”
• “I felt I was there with the characters. I was not in the Air Force in WWII, but an officer with the army engineers along the Burma Road in China.”
• “I’ve just finished The Girl in tears. I got lost in the book, because you put me there with Marshall and Annette. We are discussing your treasure at my men’s book club tomorrow, and I want to thank you for the literary gem you provided. My father-in-law will be 90 this June, a veteran of WW II in Canadian Army Reconnaissance. I thought of him often during the reading of your enthralling work.”

BobbieAnnMason_AP_retouchedI am so touched by all these responses, which tell of the urgency people feel about remembering World War II. While writing this novel, I traveled to Europe, where I looked up some members of the Resistance who had helped my father-in-law escape from Occupied France. Their memories were very much alive and they wanted their stories to be told. They trusted me to tell in fiction the emotional truth of their sacrifices. It was a challenge, and no book I’ve written has involved me so deeply. In France I became friends with a lovely woman named Michele, who was the original girl in the blue beret, the girl I call Annette. Her story is the inspiration at the heart of this novel.
I hope that you will enjoy my story of Marshall and Annette and find much to discuss in your book club. I can be in touch via e-mail or Skype!

Thank you,
Bobbie Ann

Visit Bobbie Ann’s website to share your own story about The Girl in the Blue Beret and learn more about Bobbie Ann and her books.

Author Photo © LaNelle Mason.

The Girl in the Blue Beret by Bobbie Ann Mason: A Reader’s Guide

Friday, May 18th, 2012

Mason_Girl in the Blue BeretBehind the Book

My father-in-law was a pilot. During World War II, he was shot down in a B-17 over Belgium. With the help of the French Resistance, he made his way through Occupied France and back to his base in England. Ordinary citizens hid him in their homes, fed him, disguised him, and sheltered him from the Germans. Many families willingly hid Allied aviators, knowing the risks: They would have been shot or sent to a concentration camp if they were dis- covered by the Germans.

In 1987 the town in Belgium honored the crew by erecting a memorial at the crash site, where one of the ten crew members died. The surviving crew was invited for three days of festivities, including a ?yover by the Belgian Air Force. More than three thousand Allied airmen were rescued during the war, and an extraordinarily deep bond between them and their European helpers endures even now.

My father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, spent a couple of months hiding out in France in 1944, frantically memorizing a few French words to pass himself off as a Frenchman, but his ordeal had not inspired in me any ?ction until I started taking a French class. Suddenly, the language was transporting me back in time and across the ocean, as I tried to imagine a tall, out-of-place American struggling to say Bonjour. Barney had a vague memory of a girl who had escorted him in Paris in 1944. He remembered that her signal was something blue—a scarf, maybe, or a beret. The notion of a girl in a blue beret seized me, and I was off.
I had my title, but I didn’t know what my story would be. I had to go to France to imagine the country in wartime. What would I have done in such circumstances of fear, deprivation, and uncertainty? What if my pilot character returns decades later to search for the people who had helped him escape?

Writing a novel about World War II and the French Resistance was a challenge both sobering and thrilling. I read many riveting escape-and-evade accounts of airmen and of the Resistance networks organized to hide them and then send them on grueling treks across the Pyrenees to safety. But it was the people I met in France and Belgium who made the period come alive for me. They had lived it.

In Belgium, I was entertained lavishly by the people who had honored the B-17 crew with the memorial, including by some of the locals who had witnessed the crash landing. I was overwhelmed by their generosity. They welcomed me with an extravagant three- cheek kiss, but one ninety-year-old man, Fernand Fontesse, who had been in the Resistance and had been a POW, planted his kiss squarely on my lips.

In a small town north of Paris I met Jean Hallade. He had been only ?fteen when Second Lieutenant Rawlings was hidden in a nearby house. Jean took a picture of Barney in a French beret, a photo to be used for the fake ID card he would need as he traveled through France over the next few months, disguised as a French cabinetmaker.

And in Paris I became friends with lovely, indomitable Michèle Agniel, who had been a girl guide in the Resistance. Her family aided ?fty Allied aviators, including Barney Rawlings. She takes her scrapbooks from the war years to schools to show children what once happened. “This happened here,” she says. “Here is a ration card. This is a swastika.” She pauses. “Never again,” she says. The characters in The Girl in the Blue Beret are not portraits of actual people, but the situations were inspired by very real individuals whom I regard as heroes.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss the special bond between Allied aviators and their European helpers. Why did it take so long for many of them to reunite after the war?

2. What does ?ying mean to Marshall? Discuss Marshall’s failed B-17 mission and the effect it had on his life. (more…)

Bobbie Ann Mason on book clubs: “Keep the momentum going”

Tuesday, June 28th, 2011

Mason_bobbie annI visited with my first book club recently—the Winder Binder bookstore in Chattanooga, TN.  A pleasant bunch of folks had read one of my books, and they were overflowing with enthusiastic questions, as well as insights that had never occurred to me as the author. It is always a nice surprise when readers find interesting connections in the text that I didn’t know were there. What can be more gratifying for a writer than to have one’s work taken seriously and with good feeling?  It is not the forced assignment of a classroom syllabus, but a voluntary attention and an honest response to the words inside the covers of a book.  The book–that revered relic.  Let us all get our paws on as many as we can and talk about them and share them with our friends.   Even e-books can work.  Reading  is something like being inside a tent. When you are finished, you crawl out and return the book to the shelf, but  an e-book magically retreats into the clouds. The tent goes too, stakes and all.

Reading is so private, and it is often a reader’s  habit to finish a book, close the covers, and plunge into the next one without a backward glance.  “I just  read this terrific book, couldn’t put it down.” End of story. Reading  can be just feeding, but smart reading takes us further.  The classroom is one way to go deeper, but we can’t stay in school forever.

Writers want to be reread.  They want to think that their words don’t just flash by but deserve some reflection.  Girl in the Blue BeretSometimes a book I’m reading is so terrific that when I finish, I simply turn back to page one and start all over again to see what I’ve missed,  to experience it again, more deeply, or because I don’t want to let it go.  In a book club  you can keep the momentum going, let the book ricochet around a group of readers.  A book club is a way to prolong the book, deepen your journey into it, and enjoy  refreshments with friends.

I can hardly think of a more benign and cheerful way to hand in a book report.

I hope you’ll read my new book, The Girl in the Blue Beret, and if you like it share it with book clubs in your area.  This book is very special to me—it takes place in France!  It’s about a bomber pilot who was shot down in Europe during World War II. In  later years he goes back to find the people who had helped him escape from Occupied France.  One of those is a mysterious man named Robert, and of course there was a girl in a blue beret.

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Consider these questions when reading The Girl in the Blue Beret:

1. Discuss the special bond between Allied aviators and their European helpers.  Why did it take so long for many of them to reunite after the war?

2. What does flying mean to Marshall?  Discuss Marshall’s failed B-17 mission and the effect it had on his life.

3.  Look at and discuss the images of flight throughout the novel. How does the final sentence  tie in?

4.  What is Marshall’s feeling about the young man he remembers as Robert? Does Marshall romanticize him? Why is finding Robert so important to Marshall?

5.  Love and war.  There are two main love stories in this novel–the younger couple, Annette and Robert,  and the mature couple, Annette and Marshall.  How are these relationships different from each other?   What does war do to love and romance?

6. Why is Marshall so unprepared for what Annette reveals to him?  How does he deal with her story? What possibilities lie ahead for him?

7. The name Annette Vallon is inspired by a historical figure–a woman who was William Wordsworth’s lover during the French Revolution, and the mother of his illegitimate child. What suggestions are being made by the use of the name here? What else can you learn about Annette Vallon from further research?

8. What do you make of the epigraph, by William Wordsworth?  Is it appropriate? How does it connect with the use of Annette Vallon’s name?

9. What do mountains mean to Marshall?  Trace the importance of mountains at different stages of his life.

10.  How does Marshall look back on his war experience? How does his  perspective change during the course of the novel?

11. How do the experiences in the book compare with your own experiences of war? Have you ever known anyone captured during wartime?

12. What is meant by second chances?

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