Tag: Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnellby Sonia Purnell

ISBN 978-0-7352-2529-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

 “Valor rarely reaps the dividends it should.”

In the midst of Nazi-occupied France, an American woman with a prosthetic leg who appears to be working as a journalist seems an unlikely candidate for one of World War II’s most successful spies. However, it was precisely this uncanny set of circumstances combined with her language skills and unique personality that allowed Virginia Hall to become an instrumental force in arming and organizing the French resistance movement. In contrast to many of her peers, she was so good at recruiting and coordinating that she gained a dangerous level of infamy in Lyon and beyond as The Limping Woman, soon becoming one of the Nazi’s most-wanted, until she was eventually forced to flee over the Pyrenees into Spain on foot. But her war would not end there, and she would go on to become one of the first women recruited into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency after the war.

A Woman of No Importance brings to light the accomplishments of one of the war’s quietest heroes, a woman who avoided recognition, and even turned down a White House ceremony when it found her anyway. Still hoping to do field work after the war, she did not wish to draw public attention to herself. The tight-lipped policy that served her well in the war carried on throughout her life, so that she is little known today outside of intelligence circles. However, film rights for this book have reportedly been optioned, with J. J. Abrams directing, and Daisy Ridley attached to star, though no doubt both have been busy with Star Wars Episode IX.

An aspiring diplomat, Hall lost her leg in a hunting accident while stationed abroad as a clerk with the State Department in Turkey. Struggling for advancement, and repeatedly refused entrance to the diplomatic corps, she turned her back on the Department and went in search of other opportunities. She tried to join the women’s branch of the British army when war broke out, but since foreign nationals were not accepted, she eventually found herself in the French ambulance corps. With the United States remaining neutral at the start of the war, she began her work as a spy with Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE), also known as the Baker Street Irregulars, or Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. Purnell’s previous book focused on the life of Clementine Churchill.

A Woman of No Importance recounts the accomplishments of a confident woman with a talent for cultivating sources and allies who trusted her implicitly, a feat many of her male peers struggled to imitate. Virginia’s confidence was also her downfall, however, in the form of a priest called Alesch, who passed off his German accent and appearance by claiming to be from the border region of Alsace. He avowed himself as an enemy of the Nazis because they had killed his father, and he spouted anti-Nazi rhetoric from his pulpit every Sunday. In fact, Alesch was a spy for the Abwehr, the German intelligence service. Virgina was suspicious of him, but believed that she could handle him. This self-confidence would prove fatal to many members of her network when she was forced to flee the country. In her absence, Alesch had enough information from his contact with her to infiltrate her circuit, and Virginia was not there to gainsay him to her more trusting contacts. Because she failed to trust her gut, much of her network would be burned, a guilt which stayed with her, and compelled her to go back into France after a narrow escape. In the Haute-Loire, she would become a legend for organizing and arming the maquisards.

Most of Virginia’s fellow field agents were men, with whom she had relationships that ranged from collaborative to adversarial. The women she worked with were largely French recruits into her information network. Initially distrustful of sex workers, viewing them as collaborators if they took Nazi clients, Virginia eventually came to rely on the resourcefulness of such women. One small but fascinating aspect of this book shows how these women quietly participated in the resistance by such unorthodox means as getting enemy soldiers addicted to drugs, or deliberately infecting them with venereal diseases. This was in addition to more traditional means of assistance, such as providing safe houses, access to black market gods, or spiking an officer’s drink, and then rifling his pockets for information when he passed out.

This fascinating account takes the reader deep into the underground of the French Resistance, and behind the scenes of how the Allies worked to arm and coordinate with fighters inside the occupied country to end the war. Hall’s remarkable adventures make for a gripping, if bittersweet read. After struggling to find her place as a young woman, Hall achieved great success in the war, only to struggle to advance in her later career. What was forgiven under the exigencies of war held her back at Langley. That she is today recognized as one of the greats is but little consolation for the failure to fully utilize her talents.

You might also like Liar, Temptress, Solider, Spy by Karen Abbott

ALA Midwinter Non-Fiction Preview

At the end of January, I had the chance to attend two days of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. I had a great time attending panels, meeting up with book blog and librarian friends, and browsing the exhibits.  As usual, publishers were spotlighting some of their upcoming titles. Here are a few of the non-fiction titles that I am excited about!

Midnight by Victoria Shorr

Cover image for Midnight by Victoria ShorrA biography in three parts, Midnight examines three famous women at moments of crisis and reflection. Jane Austen’s moment comes at the death of her father, and a proposal of marriage, a critical choice between securing home and hearth, and a writing career. Mary Shelley finds herself on the shores of an Italian lake, five days after the disappearance of her husband in a storm. Going still further back, Joan of Arc reckons with meeting her fate at the stake for the second time. Midnight captures three notable women at their darkest hour, including two of my favourite authors, and a religious figure who fascinated me in my younger years. Coming March 12, 2019 from W. W. Norton Company.

Biased by Jennifer L. Eberhardt

Cover image for Biased by Jennifer L. EberhardtSocial psychologist and Stanford professor Jennifer L. Eberhardt studies unconscious racial bias, and its implications at the the institutional level, particularly for the criminal justice system, such as policing and prisons.  It seems especially important for those who consciously believe in equality to consider how social training and subconscious impulses may be affecting our behaviours and perceptions in ways we are not fully aware of, and the cascading effects of those behaviours on the lives of those around us. Other early reviewers have touted Eberhardt’s clear explanations, and her ability to combine academic research examples with personal stories to illustrate her point, an ideal combination for an academic publishing a general interest book. Biased is due out March 26, 2019 from Viking.

Shakespeare’s Library by Stuart Kells

Cover image for Shakespeare's Library by Stuart KellsIn literary scholarship, the books, letters, and papers of famous authors become, after death, invaluable treasure troves for those who study their work. But in the case of the English language’s most famous wordsmith, no such legacy remains. Stuart Kells follows the many efforts that have been made in the four centuries since the Bard’s death to locate his papers, and the various searches and expeditions that have tried to track down William Shakespeare’s library. But the itinerant playwright seems to have left little trace.  I’m a sucker for books about books, so I expect this one will really hit the spot. Originally released last year in Australia by Text Publishing, the US publication comes April 2, 2019 from Counterpoint.

A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell

Cover image for A Woman of No Importance by Sonia PurnellInvestigative journalist Sonia Purnell digs into the secret life of Virginia Hall, one of World War II’s most accomplished spies and Resistance organizers. An American woman who lost her career in the diplomatic service to a hunting accident that led to the amputation of her leg, Hall found a second chance working as a spy for the British after the fall of France. She continued her work even after her cover was blown, and she became one of Germany’s most wanted, a bounty on her head, and posters of her face calling out for her arrest. I continue to be endlessly fascinated by this period of history, and I particularly like fresh perspectives that challenge our assumptions and expectations about the roles people played. Look for A Woman of No Importance April 9, 2019 from Viking.

The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong

Cover image for The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong Given that she was one of the internet’s first big bloggers, it probably isn’t surprising that the first blog I ever followed was Heather B. Armstrong’s dooce blog, way back in the day before she was even a mom, let alone a “mommy blogger.” So when I saw her forthcoming memoir at ALA, I thought it would be cool to catch up. After struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts for many years, The Valedictorian of Being Dead follows Armstrong’s decision to participate in a clinical trial for an experimental treatment that would chemically induce a coma and brain death, before bringing her back. Coming April 23, 2019 from Gallery Books.

Did you have a chance to attend ALA? What forthcoming non-fiction titles are you excited about? Let me know in the comments!