As so many others did, I first became familiar with the work of Bobbie Ann Mason through her books Shiloh and Other Stories and In Country. Back then she was counted, fairly or unfairly, as part of a new wave of North American writers, the so-called "Dirty Realist" school that included authors like Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jayne Ann Phillips, and Larry Brown. Both books were bestsellers and received critical praise. I know they were also eagerly lapped up by budding young fiction writers of the time. In Country was later made into a movie starring Bruce Willis, and the title story of Shiloh has become something of a contemporary American classic, anthologized repeatedly in a stream of fiction volumes. But I lost track of Bobbie Ann Mason after that. She seemed to fall out of favor--as did the minimalistic idiosyncracies of the Dirty Realist school. (The death of Raymond Carver probably hastened along this inevitable development.) Mason kept writing, however. Among other things, she has pubished several more story collections, the memoir Clear Springs (nominated for a Pulitzer in 1999) and, in 2003, a biography of Elvis Presley for the Penguin Lives biography series. She has also been a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine.
In 2011, she published The Girl in the Blue Beret, her second historical novel and one of her rare fictional forays outside of the state of Kentucky. Well, actually, Girl is one of those books that makes you question the definition historical fiction. Technically, it's a contemporary novel, one that follows the actions of its protagonist--a retired airline pilot--as he travels through Belgium and France to retrace his experiences there during World War II. (The "present" of the novel is 1980.) While what happens in the present certainly matters to the protagonist, what makes up the meat of the novel is the terrible weight of World War II history, specifically the history of the French resistance and the risks the résistants took to save and hide--and later return to England--American aviators who had been shot down over Belgium and France. It is this history--told through memory, dialogue, and the occasional flashback--that most engrosses the reader and, in the end, impacts the retired pilot in ways he could not have imagined before he began his journeys. The book is so informed by history--so completely a creature of it--that I can't think of any other label to apply but that of historical.
It's a joy to rediscover Mason's fiction after many years, and an even bigger joy to see her engaged with material that would have been outside the range of her earlier self. She hasn't just kept writing, but she has grown as an artist. Her research is impeccable. Inspired by the true life story of her father-in-law and his own crash landing in Belgium, Mason read widely--through both published and unpublished memoirs--into the experiences of Allied flyers who were shot down during the war and into the experiences of the members of the French resistance who quietly helped them. She also interviewed a woman who had been held in the same Koenigsberg prison camp that comes to play such an important, if disturbing, part in the novel. I did not know--as Mason's protagonist Marshall doesn't--that résistants, after being arrested, were sometimes tortured and sent to concentration camps. Finding this out makes for a crucial, moving turn in Marshall's present life.
By all means, anyone who has enjoyed Mason's work in the past should "catch up" with this novel. Or anyone interested in historical fiction generally--or World War II fiction in particular. It will not disappoint you. My only real criticism is that in the second half of the book a great deal of crucial history is transmitted by means of conversation between Marshall and Annette, the now older "Girl in the Blue Beret." Literally page after page and chapter after chapter is mostly conversation about the past. If a student in my novel writing class had tried that I would have felt compelled to correct him or her. It would be more dramatically satisfying, I would tell them, to show at least some of this history via scene, after first establishing that the frame of the conversation between Marshall and Annette. I think this is a fair complaint, but on the other hand I hate to complain about a book that so effectively brings to light this under-realized aspect of World War II history; and I hate to complain too when I'm so glad to see Mason return to the art of the novel.