Monday, October 7, 2019

Non-fiction review: A Woman of No Importance

Title:  A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
Author: Sonia Purnell
Publication Info: Viking Press, 2019. 368 pages.
Source: Library digital resources

Publisher's Blurb:
In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her."

The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill's "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and--despite her prosthetic leg--helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it.

Virginia established vast spy networks throughout France, called weapons and explosives down from the skies, and became a linchpin for the Resistance. Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped through a death-defying hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown. But she plunged back in, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.

Based on new and extensive research, Sonia Purnell has for the first time uncovered the full secret life of Virginia Hall--an astounding and inspiring story of heroism, spycraft, resistance, and personal triumph over shocking adversity.

My Review:
I’m not sure where I got the tip-off for reading this book—I think it might have been the collection of brief sketches on women heroes of WWII I reviewed here. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I picked it up. The biography is well-written and historically diligent, with no effort to create thoughts and motives where they aren’t known—which is almost everywhere.

Virginia Hall was an exceptionally private person, perhaps because of her work as a spy, perhaps just by nature (which caused which?). In any case, we have to learn to know her primarily through the eyes of the men she worked with, and official documents. The reward for that research effort is a book that combines all the elements of a spy thriller with a strict adherence to fact. You might even call it a slightly dry spy thriller, except I was never bored. 

The other aspect of the book that makes it both a valuable and at times painful read is the history of sexism it exposes. Virginia Hall was acknowledged by the vast majority of those who knew her work as one of, if not the best spy in France during the war. Yet because of her gender, she was consistently passed over for promotion, and for much of the war the SEO (British Intelligence) and later the OSS (US Office of Special Services) routinely tried to put men with less—or no—experience and qualifications in command of her. After the war, it was even worse.

Happily for all of us—because in the end Ms. Hall performed feats of espionage and guerrilla warfare that may have tipped the balance for the Allies after the D-Day landings—she wasn’t particularly inclined to give in and accept her “place” as a woman. I might say she was a woman ahead of her time, but in fact I would argue that she was one of the women who made our time possible.

My Recommendation:
This is a book that helps to explode the myths not only about what women can do, but also about what they *did* do. And I didn’t even mention the fact that she had a disability, having lost one leg below the knee due to a hunting accident and a case of gangrene. Any time I’m feeling sorry for myself because things hurt when I’m hiking, I’ll be remembering Virginia, crossing the Pyrenees on foot, in winter, with a 1930s-technology false leg (named Cuthbert).

FTC Disclosure: I checked A Woman of No Importance out of my library, and received nothing from the writer or publisher for my honest review.  The opinions expressed are my own and those of no one else.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."  


  1. I'm glad we're getting a lot more information about women we should be using as role models - redressing the balance is essential. We had two spy ladies in particular to look up to, both of which featured in a book I won at school; Violet Szabo was the focus of 'Carve her Name with Pride' and I certainly did. The other one I always mix up with her and have temporarily forgotten her name. Shame on me!

    1. I don't think I knew about any of these women as a kid. All the heroes were male.

  2. This sounds like a book I'd like to read!

    1. It was really good! The war part was edge-of-your-seat stuff.

  3. What a great book review. Thank you for sharing that. We don't know about books unless someone reviews them! :)

    1. Thanks! I enjoy sharing books I read and think are good. I'm backing away from doing 2 reviews a week, which I managed to maintain for a long time, but I will continue to post reviews most weeks (when I'm not traveling too much to read or review).


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