When Marshall Stone revisits the field where his bomber crashed in World War II, 36 years have passed. It’s 1980, he’s an airline pilot facing forced retirement because of his age, and he has returned to a field in Belgium where he executed a belly landing, saving himself and most of the crew after the plane was hit by gunfire from a German fighter. Marshall begins to cry.
His guide, a Belgian war veteran, nods. “I know, monsieur.”
As he stands in the field, Marshall finds himself in two places, one now and one then.
“The deep, rumbling sound of a vast formation of B-17s roared through Marshall’s memory now. The steady, violent, rocking flight toward target. The sight of Focke-Wulf 190s - angry hornets darting crazily. The black bursts of flak floating like tumbleweeds strewn on a western highway. The fuselage flak-peppered. Slipping down into the cloud deck, flying for more than an hour unprotected. Over Belgium, hit again. The nose cone shattering. The pilot panicking.”
Marshall had been co-pilot. The pilot was hit by gunfire and died. It was all in his memory like a video playing on continuous loop. He landed the crippled plane over and over. When his wife died and the airline said he had to retire, Marshall had made the trip to Europe as a kind of tying of loose ends. Once he got there, he found there were more loose ends than he had remembered at first.
After the plane went down, Marshall had gotten out with some of the other crew members. He wound up hiding in the woods. Local people helped him make his way to France where he was eventually sheltered by members of the French Resistance and was passed from hideout to hideout until he made his way over the Pyrenees into Spain and on to Gibraltar and back to England. But it had been his last mission. The war ended not long after he got back.
While at the crash site, Marshall recognizes a face, “leathery but younger than Marshall’s.”
“ 'You were the boy who helped me!’ Marshall said, astonished.”
“ 'Oui. C’est moi.’”
The chance encounter plants a seed in Marshall’s mind. After he returns home from his last flight as a commercial pilot to the empty New Jersey house he once shared with his wife, Marshall goes over the events of the war: crash landing in Belgium, beings helped by a family there, crossing into France, eluding the Germans, donning disguises, receiving help from the Resistance, crossing into Spain. Most of all he remembers the people who aided him - what had happened to them? Marshall, who failed to maintain contact with any of his wartime benefactors, decides to head to France to try to track them down and get some answers.
So Marshall ties up loose ends with his house and his children and takes off for Europe. He knows it will not be easy to find the people who helped him - most used false names during the war - noms de guerre. He wants to find the family in Paris who helped him. Their daughter, Annette, had guided him from the train station. So that he might recognize her when he got off the train, she wore a blue beret.
He’s lucky. Right away he finds the Belgian family who first offered him shelter. As he continues his search for the girl in the blue beret and others, his journey across France brings him in contact with many veterans of the war, and he finds some answers but to his surprise, he also finds many more questions. The wife in the Belgian family also gives him some perspective on how the war affected Europeans.
“'Be thankful, Marshall,’ Gis?le said. 'Your countrymen have never known such times, when children become combatants.’” It will not be the only revelation Marshall receives in Europe, nor the last reminder of the heroism of the members of the Resistance.
Eventually, Marshall realizes that while he remembers much, there is also much he doesn’t remember. It’s because of who he was during the war. He thinks about it all after meeting Annette again.
“He pictured the blithe young man he had been - reckless but scared, overconfident, out of his element, filled with longings, strangely detached from home, walking tentatively in a foreign country. He reflected upon his youthful brazenness, his na?veté. He wondered if Annette found her youth embarrassing too. Maybe the primary difference between youth and adulthood was the capacity for embarrassment.”
This is a book about then and now, told both in the present and in the past through memories, flashbacks and anecdotes related by characters. This sort of dual timeline has rarely been done as well as Mason does it here. The structure of this book is flawless, the plot advancing with each event in the present or in the past. It’s a masterful achievement.
Mason adds some surprises at the end but not jarring, incongruous things. Rather, her twists are in keeping with the setting and while you don’t see them coming, when she tweaks the plot, you say “of course.” While this is a plot-driven book, the characters are strong as well - flawed, conflicted and realistic.
Mason’s writing is, as always, rendered in the clear, smooth voice of a natural storyteller. It’s the kind of voice you’d hear spooling a tale on a front porch on a cool evening in early fall, and it harkens back to her Kentucky roots. It’s just another one of the pleasures of reading this very high quality literary work.