The year is 1944, and Marshall Stone is flying a B-17 back to England after a bombing run over Germany. Suddenly, everything goes wrong.
The "flying fortress" is separated from its unit. A German fighter attacks. Marshall must crash-land in a Belgian field. He and other surviving crew members are rescued and sheltered by a series of families in La Résistance Francaise, smuggled through France and across the Pyrenees mountains to Spain and safety.
It is a dangerous and memorable adventure. But once World War II ends, Marshall never looks back. He marries his sweetheart, they have two children and he becomes absorbed in his career as an airline pilot.
Then, it's 1980. Marshall is 60, and federal regulations say he must retire. His wife has died, his children are grown and he can no longer fly airliners. Marshall realizes that the only way he can go forward is to look back.
Marshall returns to Europe, determined to find the people who saved his life, especially Annette, the young girl in a blue beret who bravely guided him through the streets of Nazi-occupied Paris. Marshall finds her, and in the process, he discovers more than he bargained for about his saviors and himself.
That is the story that Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason tells in her intimate and haunting new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret (Random House, $26).
Most of Mason's acclaimed novels and short stories have drawn on her Western Kentucky heritage. This book takes place in a landscape very different, but almost as personal. The story was inspired by the wartime experiences of her father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, and her own travels through Europe after his death to get to know the aging survivors of La Résistance who risked their lives to save his.
"I'm very proud of it, I must say," Mason, 70, said when we met for lunch last week after her French class at Lexington's Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning. "I knew I was jumping in over my head."
Rawlings, who before his death in 2004 was a Trans World Airlines captain, had talked about his World War II adventures and had written a memoir. Mason started thinking about that in 2006, when she resumed the French studies she had given up after college. "I thought there was a good premise (for a novel) in what would happen if he went back," she said.
Rawlings had gone back in 1993; he visited his crash site and some of the people who had helped him. That included a young girl he remembered as having worn a blue beret or scarf so disguised GIs could follow her through Paris at a discreet distance. Rawlings left his reunion at that, but it provided Mason a launching point for her novel.
Mason eventually made five trips to Paris. She became friends with the girl, now a lively woman of 81, and she learned harrowing details of the woman's own wartime experiences. "She was my model for Annette," Mason said, "but I made up so much stuff."
Mason traveled to Belgium and found people who had witnessed her father-in-law's crash-landing. She met a man near Paris who, at age 15, had photographed Rawlings disguised as a Frenchman so the photo could be used for a fake ID card.
"They really helped open up the period for me in a way that books couldn't. They made it real," she said.
"The people welcomed me like family because I was the daughter-in-law of this bomber co-pilot and they were so grateful to the American bombers," she said. "I was astonished by their hospitality. I didn't know French that well, and some people didn't speak English, but we carried on."
The novel required intense historical research. Mason's husband, Roger Rawlings, is an aviation buff like his father, so he helped teach her about airplanes. Mason read everything she could about World War II. She patterned characters after the Europeans she met and others they told her about.
Mason's stories are famous for their authentic voices, steeped in the cadences of small-town Western Kentucky. Creating authentic dialog for French characters was a challenge. "In my head I could hear the voices of the people I met, and I was trying to get that sound," she said.
Another thing about this novel was different for Mason.
"Usually when I finish a project, I just box up all the research and turn my back and it's done; I'm through," she said. "This subject is going to stay with me for the rest of my life, and I will keep on reading about it. The war was the biggest story of the 20th century."