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Reader’s Guide: WE BAND OF ANGELS by Elizabeth Norman

Monday, October 28th, 2013

Norman_WeBandofAngels “Gripping . . . a war story in which the main characters never kill one of the enemy, or even shoot at him, but are nevertheless heroes . . . Americans today should thank God we had such women.”—Stephen E. Ambrose

In We Band of Angels, Elizabeth Norman tells the untold story of the American nurses trapped on Bataan during World War II. The author tells us about her inspiration and interest in the story below and provides you with exclusive book club questions to get your discussions going.

A Letter from the Author

Women writing about women, especially in the modern age, more often than not have political themes, and there’s a reason for this. Look around the world, or around your own community, and you’ll see evidence everywhere that emancipation is still a work in progress.

With We Band of Angels, I wanted to work on a different kind of book, a story rather than a policy, how-to, or political volume, so I chased after seventy-seven military nurses captured by the Japanese in the first days of World War II. I wanted to get to know to a small group of women who went against the tide long before it was popular or politic.

To put it plainly, I was interested in risk. Women taking risks before it was socially acceptable. I wanted to know what moved them to break with convention, to set aside marriage and a family, and seek adventure in a tropical paradise, a part of the world that was already at war with itself. Different from the women of their time – that’s for sure.

I ultimately discovered how these women were ahead of their time, and that appealed to me most. They weren’t headstrong, stubborn, or a bunch of misfits. On the contrary, they were all too ordinary. But each one saw possibilities for herself, and they were determined to explore those possibilities no matter what the cost.

I could imagine myself in their white shoes or green U.S. Army Air Corps coveralls because I, too, was a nurse. They represented the kind of woman I hope I was and wanted to be. They were exemplars – bold, adventurous, professional, resourceful, and smart.
I hope you’ll like them as much as I enjoyed writing about them. Thank you for reading We Band of Angels.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. The ninety-nine women who were serving in the Philippines in 1941 all volunteered for their overseas duty. One woman smiled and told the author, “I sure got more adventure than I ever bargained for.” Have you ever thrown caution to the wind and volunteered overseas or someplace exotic? If so, how did your family and friends react to this decision?

2. When the bombs fell on December 7th, the women were forced to spring into action. Have you ever had everything change in a slit second? If so, how did you deal with this change?

3. What were some of the changes these women had to make to their clothing, daily routines, and the way they treated each other?

4. On Bataan, right before General King surrendered the men, he ordered the women off the jungle peninsula to Corregidor. These nurses had to leave their work and walk past thousands of sick and wounded American men. Would you have done the same? How would you have felt about it?

5. On Corregidor, all the Americans knew they were going to surrender. General Wainwright found spots on airplanes and a submarine to evacuate some of the nurses. Would you have accepted a chance to leave? Why?

6. How important was camaraderie to the women when they were POWs? What role did their two leaders, Maude Davison and Laura Cobb, play in keeping their groups alive and well?

7. Would you encourage women today to join the military and seek combat roles?

8. Discuss why you think these women and their heroism were ignored for so long.

9. How do you think you would have survived the battles, the surrender, and the prison camp?

10. If you could, what is the one question you would like to ask these women?

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.

Buy the hardcover or eBook


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?

A message from UNBROKEN author Laura Hillenbrand

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Unbroken_hcDear readers,

Eight years ago, an old man told me a story that took my breath away. His name was Louie Zamperini, and from the day I first spoke to him, his almost incomprehensibly dramatic life was my obsession.

It was a horse—the subject of my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend–who led me to Louie. As I researched the Depression-era racehorse, I kept coming across stories about Louie, a 1930s track star who endured an amazing odyssey in World War II. I knew only a little about him then, but I couldn’t shake him from my mind. After I finished Seabiscuit, I tracked Louie down, called him and asked about his life. For the next hour, he had me transfixed.

Growing up in California in the 1920s, Louie was a hellraiser, stealing everything edible that he could carry, staging elaborate pranks, getting in fistfights, and bedeviling the local police. But as a teenager, he emerged as one of the greatest runners America had ever seen, competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he put on a sensational performance, crossed paths with Hitler, and stole a German flag right off the Reich Chancellery. He was preparing for the 1940 Olympics, and closing in on the fabled four-minute mile, when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier. Stationed on Oahu, he survived harrowing combat, including an epic air battle that ended when his plane crash-landed, some six hundred holes in its fuselage and half the crew seriously wounded.

On a May afternoon in 1943, Louie took off on a search mission for a lost plane. Somewhere over the Pacific, the engines on his bomber failed. The plane plummeted into the sea, leaving Louie and two other men stranded on a tiny raft. Drifting for weeks and thousands of miles, they endured starvation and desperate thirst, sharks that leapt aboard the raft, trying to drag them off, a machine-gun attack from a Japanese bomber, and a typhoon with waves some forty feet high. At last, they spotted an island. As they rowed toward it, unbeknownst to them, a Japanese military boat was lurking nearby. Louie’s journey had only just begun.

That first conversation with Louie was a pivot point in my life. Fascinated by his experiences, and the mystery of how a man could overcome so much, I began a seven-year journey through his story. I found it in diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs; in the memories of his family and friends, fellow Olympians, former American airmen and Japanese veterans; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. Along the way, there were staggering surprises, and Louie’s unlikely, inspiring story came alive for me. It is a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.

The culmination of my journey is my new book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I hope you are as spellbound by Louie’s life as I am.

Laura Hillenbrand

Bertelsmann Media Worldwide