I wrote the novelist Bobbie Ann Mason to ask her thoughts on one of the trickiest tasks of the writer — going back and forth in time. I have been a fan of the author since 1985, when I read In Country, Mason’s novel of the aftermath of the Vietnam War — a subject that has consumed me since 1966, when I disembarked over the side of the USNS Geiger at Cam Ranh Bay. What struck me was the power of Mason’s account of the effect of battle years afterward. We always know the number of killed and wounded soldiers, but can’t begin to account for civilian casualties — including the families of those soldiers who bear wounds that are not visible. Mason’s novel helps begin such an accounting.
And now there is The Girl in the Blue Beret, about to emerge in its paperback edition. In this, Mason uses the story of her father-in-law for inspiration. The protagonist, Marshall Stone, returns in 1980 to the French countryside where during World War II he was rescued by civilians after the crash of his bomber. He tries to find the girl in the blue beret, Annette, and others who helped him escape the Nazis. One of the things that strikes me about the organization of the narrative is the way it jumps back and forth in time, from, for example, the cockpit of a 747, which Marshall flies in the present (that is, 1980), to the cockpit of the B-17 (three and a half decades earlier), and in his startling discoveries of the ultimate fates of his rescuers. And yet Mason manages to keep the reader in the moment, and unconfused. As a teacher of writing, I am particularly interested in the art of the reveal — how present-day action requires information from the past to emerge seamlessly, in a way that sets it apart from blatant (and boring) exposition.
Last week, Mason wrote back. Here’s part of what she said:
“That is a very good question about the structure, and I realize it might seem difficult to work out. Actually, it was less difficult because the flashbacks occur at psychologically appropriate moments. Thus, when Marshall is reading letters he wrote from Molesworth, he can drift back in memory. Or when he visits the Alberts, the emotion of the present meeting carries him back to the time of his hiding. Or when he meets Gordon Webb, there is an undercurrent of memory being evoked by the meeting.
“But of course it is structured for the reader’s convenience, too, so that the story can unfold. Not everything is told at once. Sometimes it is told more than once. Thus, the crash of the B-17 is told in three different segments, so that we don’t learn about what really happened until Marshall himself is willing to confront his memory.
“Once I recognized that there would be parallel narratives, 1944 and 1980, it wasn’t hard to figure out what the points would be where they intersected. For example, I thought he should save his letters to Loretta to read while he was flying to France, so we can get a juxtaposition of flying now with the memory of flying the B-17 in 1944. Reading the letters would naturally bring Molesworth to life in his memory, so the reader gets to see that.
“And once he settles into Paris in 1980, his memories of hiding there with the Vallons begin to emerge and we start to get a fuller picture of Annette.”
“I’m not sure I’ve answered the question, but it seemed intuitive to me as I followed Marshall on his quest. The hard part was not the weaving in of memories but the filling out of the present situations, where he was mostly occupied with mundane details and frustration. Also, remember that Marshall had avoided the past, and it takes time for him to let his memories come forth and to think about them.”