I 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. Sometimes 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.
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?