Bobbie Ann Mason’s new novel returns to WWII France

June 30, 2011

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.”

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A peek into Bobbie Ann Mason’s writing technique

June 23, 2011

I have a column in Sunday’s Herald-Leader about Bobbie Ann Mason‘s fascinating new novel, The Girl in the Blue Beret. It is a story about World War II and self-discovery, based on the experiences of her late father-in-law, Barney Rawlings, who was a B-17 pilot shot down by the Germans and rescued by civilians in the French Resistance.

As we had lunch last Tuesday at Stella’s Deli on Jefferson Street, after her regular French class at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, Mason told me something about her writing technique.

“Writing is so complicated,” she said. “What I tend to do is just to go over and over it. I read it again and again, and each time I change a few things. I have trouble with radical revisions. I think in reading it over and over like that you get too close to it. I just write it and polish it until I can’t think of a single other thing to do to it. I write it until it sounds right.”

Mason, a native of Graves County who now lives in Anderson County, is the author many books, including: In Country, Shiloh and Other Stories, Clear Springs and Feather Crowns. She is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, two Southern Book Awards and other prizes, including the O. Henry and the Pushcart.


Kentuckians love a good story – and storyteller

November 6, 2009

Kentucky doesn’t just produce writers; it celebrates them.

The biggest annual celebration is Saturday, when about 200 writers — 150 of whom are Kentuckians — will gather at the Frankfort Convention Center for the 28th annual Kentucky Book Fair.

Authors will sit behind long rows of tables so thousands of readers can stop by, meet them, buy their books and get their autographs.

This year’s lineup includes pop ular Kentucky writers Silas House, Erik Reece, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ed McClanahan, Thomas Parrish, Richard Taylor and David Dick.

Also there will be retired Courier-Journal columnist Byron Crawford, who has put together a 30-year collection of his work in Kentucky Footnotes, and journalist Leslie Guttman of Lexington, who writes about a year in the life of a race horse hospital in Equine ER.

Coach Rich Brooks and co-author Tom Leach will sign their book, Rich Tradition: How Rich Brooks Revived the Football Fortunes of the Kentucky Wildcats.

And retired Keeneland chairman Ted Bassett will autograph his memoir.

National authors at the fair will include George McGovern, the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, who has written a book about Abraham Lincoln.

“I’m always so proud to live in a state that supports literature the way Kentucky does, and the Kentucky Book Fair is real proof of that,” said House, who will sign his new novel, Eli the Good.

“Everywhere I go, all over the country, people assume that Kentuckians are illiterate,” House said. “And I always take that as an opportunity to correct them and tell them about our long literary history and how great the support for writers is in our state.”

When you think about that tradition and support, it makes perfect sense. Writing is about telling stories, and there are few things Kentuckians love more than a good story — and storyteller.

Jesse Stuart and me at his home, summer 1963. Photo by Marion Eblen

I’m the son of a school librarian and a bookstore manager. Writers, especially Kentucky writers, enjoyed celebrity status in our home. My first memorable encounter with that celebrity came the summer I turned 5, when my mother’s parents came up from far Western Kentucky for a visit.

My grandparents were Jesse Stuart fans and wanted to see the Greenup County he wrote about. While my father was at work one day, my mother took us to Greenup, thinking we could drive past Stuart’s home. What she didn’t know was that the narrow gravel road ended at his home.

It didn’t look as if anyone was home, so before she turned the car around, my grandparents urged her to look in the window beside the front door. When she did, Stuart looked back. Then he opened the door and invited us in to visit.

I had just learned to do somersaults, and, much to my mother’s horror, Stuart encouraged me to practice on the braided rug in his living room. I was barefoot, so when he took us to see the cabin where he wrote, he carried me out there, giving my mother a Kodak moment.

Writers such as Stuart and James Still found rich material in the people and places of Eastern Kentucky, just as Mason has explored the land and psyche of her native Jackson Purchase region, in far Western Kentucky.

I asked Mason last week about the importance of Kentucky writers, past and future. As you might expect, her response was well worth reading:

“Kentuckians have been confused about our identity, who we are and how others see us, what we have here and what there is in the larger world. Sometimes we feel smugly superior, sometimes inferior. Kentucky writers have always walked a tightrope between Kentucky and the Outside.

“Now even though the boundary lines are easing, and Kentucky is part of the wider mainstream, our writers can continue to lead the way on the most critical issues of our time, because we can write firsthand with passion and with historical perspective about what is happening to the land and its people. Our land of contrasts is an example and a warning to the rest of the world.”

IF YOU GO

Kentucky Book Fair

When: 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Nov. 7.

Where: Frankfort Convention Center, 405 Mero St., Frankfort.

Admission: Free.

Learn more: (502) 564-8300, Ext. 297. www.kybookfair.com (there is list of all participating authors).