December 2019 –A Woman of No Importance – the Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell
There are books whose very subject matter assures the reader of a gripping, readable, entertaining tale. Generally, they are about a character whose story resonates, whose life astounds, whose deeds and feats leave the reader awestruck. When the character actually existed, the interest and respect engendered in the reader can be deep and profound. It is hard to put the book down and harder still to have it end. Zion’s Book Club selection for December – A Woman of No Importance – The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell SHOULD have been that type of book. It was not
Virginia Hall, the “unimportant woman” of the title, was a Baltimore socialite eager to experience life rather than make a good marriage to raise the family prominence in society. Happier on the back of a horse than in a drawing room, Virginia had a facility for languages. Despite a hunting accident that caused the loss of her one leg, she adapted to a prosthetic and never looked back. She absconded to pre-war Europe as soon as she could to further her study and fell in love with France, especially Paris. Virginia used connections to talk her way into a job with the State Department. She had keen powers of observation and singular focus but found the glass ceiling for women much lower than it is today. Since the State Department would not take advantage of her natural talents, she left the service but luckily found the ear of a more receptive operative of the new Special Operations Executive of the British government. While the U.S. was not yet committed to the coming battle, Britain was desperate for current information of all kinds since they could anticipate the might of the German army bearing down on them through occupied France. Desperation trumped the social convention of keeping women safe on the sidelines. Virginia was sent to France with the cover story of an American journalist, the vaguest of directions, no support network, and the expectation that she would probably be caught and likely die. Instead, she created and wove together separate cells of a resistance network and supplied valuable information through diplomatic pouches as well as stories for her editor. She worked in incredibly stressful conditions, under condescending male superiors, and with French groups who seemed more interested in internal fights with other groups than the overriding goal of destroying the Nazi juggernaut. Cover blown and disregarding orders to leave until almost too late, Virginia escaped over the Pyrenees on foot with her bloodied prosthetic (named Cuthbert) in a hair-raising escapade. And then, developing more disguises and against advice, she went BACK to France under the auspices of the American OSS to continue establishing sabotage networks and directing guerilla warfare. Against all odds, she survived and succeeded, moved back to the U.S. with a French lover (later husband), and worked for the CIA. A building at Langley headquarters is named after her. What a life! Does it not sound thrilling? Who would not want to read a book about Virginia?
Well, almost all Zion’s Book Club, that’s who! Or at least, not THIS book. As one reader said, in other hands, this should have been a grand saga played out on an international stage. Instead, it read (as a review found by one of Zion’s readers commented) like the 3 x 5 index cards for a high school history project. Fast-paced it was not, and the author took every opportunity to remind the reader that all these accomplishments were done by a woman – a woman, mind you! Can you imagine such a thing? And a woman who was disabled at that. After a while, the reminders were annoying. The cast of spies with their actual names and code names (and sometimes more than one!) were confusing and hard to follow. While the book was meticulously researched (the last third of the book consists of footnotes), there was little first-hand documentation as Virginia was quite tight-lipped about her accomplishments. In the spy’s world, secrecy is imperative which made research even more difficult for the author. Yet, she stuffed the book full of detail, so much detail that we never got to know Virginia or her colleagues well enough to feel sorry when bad things happened to them.
It was obvious that Virginia was an adrenaline junkie who felt intensely alive only when she was virtually imprisoned behind enemy lines. Her attention to detail was phenomenal (i.e. grinding down her teeth to look like a peasant woman), but it stretched our credulity that this tall, red-haired foreigner with an atrocious accent and a wooden leg would not have stood out among the French no matter how good her ability at disguise. She lived in various apartment buildings, had a stream of visitors, and was in and out at all times of the day (existing on uppers and downers to do without sleep). In a time when relatives turned in family to the Gestapo, did none of her fellow residents suspect anything? The codes Virginia and her fellow spies used seemed very amateurish and elementary. As one of our readers remarked, even she would look askance at a message that said “lights” would fall from the sky that night. Did that not suggest bombs to anyone? Virginia’s flight over the Pyrenees also was unbelievable. The stump of her leg was bleeding, but she managed to hide this from everyone? No lagging behind or leaving a trail of blood in the snow? Virginia was always sure that she was the only one who could make the best decisions, and that bravado might have been necessary for her to function. But alleging that bombs weren’t going to hit the train car in which she was riding since her location was known to the upper brass who directed the bombing raids seemed a bit egotistical even for her.
The history of the Vichy government’s collaboration with the Nazis was almost more interesting than Virginia’s exploits, and therein lies the problem with the book. It SHOULD have been a vehicle to highlight the tremendous achievements of this woman (engineering escapes from Nazi prisons, planning the destruction of bridges that involved arranging drops of supplies and distributing them), one that would pull the readers into her world of intrigue and betrayal. However, the disjointed, droning, choppy writing prevented this book from being the page turner it could have been. Which is sad, because in this day and age, we need examples of civilians who are willing to sacrifice their lives for a principle or belief. In a time when the most mundane details of someone’s life are proudly broadcast on Facebook and other social media, it can be refreshing to read about someone who refused to talk about her awards and accolades. Even if that refusal was partially based on the guilt Virginia felt for the agents she worked with who were captured, tortured, and killed. But to do that, you had to persevere through this book. And many of our readers could not do that (one suggested tongue in cheek that it be called A Book of No Importance). Four were unable to read it or finish it. Six readers did finish; of them, two were neutral, two gave it one thumb down, and two gave it two thumbs down.
Although our readers generally did not enjoy the book, they certainly enjoyed the discussion! And, as often happens, interesting and relevant tidbits about relatives surface. One reader’s father was involved in intelligence work during World War II, and the family only found out after his death that he had a hinged tooth in the back of his mouth in which to carry a cyanide pill in case of capture, torture, and the danger of revealing information to the enemy. While Virginia received cyanide pills to carry, as far as we know she did not have a hinged tooth!