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A Woman of No Importance:
Subtitle: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
Author: Sonia Purnell
Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Viking (April 9, 2019)
Purchase on Amazon
Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton originally for BookPleasures.com
This summer turned out to be my unexpected exploration into female participants in the French resistance during World War II. It began when I read D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose as well as Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson. Now, I've read a long-overdue, in-depth biography of American spy Virginia Hall by Sonia Purnell. I must concur with all the other complimentary reviewers who gave this history five star reviews.
I first read a short but very complimentary biography of Virginia Hall in Emily Yellen'sOur Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (2004). In fact, Hall was the premiere lady spy in Yellen's overview that only glancingly looked at behind-the-lines operatives in France. Of course, Purnell's tome reaches far beyond the sort of general information Yellen had access to.
Purnell's years of research is an impressive achievement considering the gaps in available files and the likelihood many of Hall's exploits were never recorded by anyone. Part of this oversight is likely based on the reality Hall's labors were so clandestine there was every reason not to keep files on her work. Equally important is the fact female agents were not the norm and there was a widespread prejudice against women being involved in the war at all except as support staff, code-breakers, ambulance-drivers, the like.
In the case of Hall, her persistence in breaking through the glass ceiling is even more impressive when you realize she was raised and groomed for a life as well-off--and married--woman in high society, not a rough-and-tumble agent living on the lam and in often dire circumstances. Add to that that the lower half of her left leg had been amputated leaving Hall a woman with a disability that could have dimmed her prospects--if not for that determined, iron will of hers.
Because of that leg and her age, Hall wasn't the most likely covert agent for the Gestapo to hunt. She was versatile in her use of disguises, using her disability as a way to throw the hounds off her trail. All she really couldn't do was run. But she could hike across a treacherous mountain trail in the snowy Pyrenees. And that was just one exploit to admire in Hall's many-faceted career.
Another woman to admire is biographer Sonia Purnell who not only keeps a fast-paced, detailed story going, but she keeps reader interest with her scattered indications of what is to come, especially the consequences of certain events. It becomes very clear Virginia Hall was a stand-out officer during World War II and could have become a valuable asset in the CIA had the agency not been populated by the Father Knows Best mentality of the Cold War years.
So readers learn much more than the day-to-day operations of Hall's covert actions and I often wondered where Purnell found so many minute details of conversations, movements, relationships, etc. As with the other books I've read this summer, I ended up feeling a sense of shame that there was a time when women, no matter how talented, creative, motivated or successful, just didn't get their due and rightful recognition. Until now.
Suggested Further Reading
My July 1, 2019 review of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose first appeared at BookPleasures.com:
My July 25th review of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson first appeared at BookPleasures.com:
More About the Reviewer
Dr. Wesley Britton is the author of The Beta Earth Chronicles and a regular review for
BookPleasures.com. Learn more about him at:
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