Virginia Hall’s story is captivating and inspiring. All I can say is I am so thankful I am not her mother!
The never-before-told story of one woman’s heroism that changed the course of the Second World War
In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: “She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her.”
This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman–rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg–who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill’s “ministry of ungentlemanly warfare,” and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France.
Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the “Madonna of the Resistance,” coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had “more lives to save,” she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell’s signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman’s fierce persistence helped win the war. from Goodreads.
As I read more stories of spies, especially female spies, I have learned to lose the expectation that I will learn their motivations, feelings, or personal observations. Spies are drilled to keep to themselves and taught that personal bonds and trust are pathways to death. Autonomy and secrecy were prized above all and, even when the War ended, either these habits or the desire to avoid reliving the war has kept their secrets. This means that any curiosity a reader may have regarding the spy’s inner thoughts and secrets must be tempered by the unwillingness of the individual to relive their experiences or disclose their secrets.
This is no diary. There is no inner monologue. Virginia Hall was raised by a mother who believed that her daughter’s greatest ambition should be a good marriage. Virginia seemed determined to live any other life. As a woman, she is overlooked and rejected for every job she applies for time and again. With her prosthetic leg, Virginia wasn’t just a woman, she was a woman with a disability in the early-mid 20th century.
Perhaps this is part of what makes Virginia’s accomplishments undeniably remarkable. Certainly, the author repeatedly brings up the burden of having a prosthetic leg on Virginia’s missions.
For me, it was so much more than Virginia being a woman or having to work around her prothesis. It was her unwavering determination. Her accomplishments are enormous but how she made such an enormous impact on the War is what struck me time and time again. When Virginia was told no, she repeatedly went anyway. When she was given a superior that knew less than she did, she worked around him (it was always a him). When put into a situation with absolutely no structure or support, Virginia built it from the ground up.
Virginia Hall’s personality, actions, and success have been verified by the depth and breadth of Sonia Purnell’s research. At times, Virginia’s work felt like fodder for a Bond film. Unfortunately, at other times, I found the writing a little dry, especially considering the subject matter. Purnell’s has beautiful turns of phrase and descriptions that are wonderful. Perhaps it was simply a necessity born of the sheer number of facts and feats surrounding Virginia’s work. Either way, there were sections that I ripped through and others that felt like I had been reading them forever.
The only other negative is one that I feel is common with WWII spy books – there are a lot of people involved in these missions. It is difficult to keep them, and the numerous names, straight in my mind. Purnell has a handy list included in the book but it is at the end and I didn’t find it until I was finished!
For anyone looking for a book that will inspire you to be brave this winter – look no further!
Tell me, please! Have you ever heard of Virginia?