A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

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 de...

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Title:A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
Author:Sonia Purnell
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A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II Reviews

  • Stephanie Crowe

    Purnell has penned another spectacular history of another outstanding woman. I was enamored with the first history of Clementine Churchill. I loved that one!! And this tale of the exploits of Virginia Hall just blew me out of the water!!! This woman was unstoppable, unflappable and fearless in her desire to serve in WWII. She was the primary developer of the French Resistance and worked for the British Secret Service as well the American OSS. She struggled for 6 years in France working to defeat

    Purnell has penned another spectacular history of another outstanding woman. I was enamored with the first history of Clementine Churchill. I loved that one!! And this tale of the exploits of Virginia Hall just blew me out of the water!!! This woman was unstoppable, unflappable and fearless in her desire to serve in WWII. She was the primary developer of the French Resistance and worked for the British Secret Service as well the American OSS. She struggled for 6 years in France working to defeat the Germans and to say she was marvelous is an understatement. She displayed such leadership that French citizens were easily enlisted to help her and willing to suffer to save their country. Purnell has done exquisite research to bring to life the work of Virginia in great detail! I can’t say enough about this book! It will be my history pick for the year! Loved it

  • Madeline

    This book tells the important story of an unrecognized hero of World War II--Virginia Hall, one of the few female spies who helped build the French Resistance and assure the success of the Allied invasion of France. Purnell's stunningly detailed research and writing puts us in the action with Virginia, building up tension, emotion and joy as events unfold. Purnell also includes the perfect amount of historical context, to ensure that the reader isn't left drowning.

    While the many code names and

    This book tells the important story of an unrecognized hero of World War II--Virginia Hall, one of the few female spies who helped build the French Resistance and assure the success of the Allied invasion of France. Purnell's stunningly detailed research and writing puts us in the action with Virginia, building up tension, emotion and joy as events unfold. Purnell also includes the perfect amount of historical context, to ensure that the reader isn't left drowning.

    While the many code names and people referenced may be confusing, the story remains focused on Virginia, and all that she has done for France, freedom and representation, of both women and those with disabilities. Virginia's story inspired and awed me in every page, and I can only look up to her as a role model. I am so glad Purnell took the time to research Virginia and give her the attention and respect that she deserved. Virginia's story is one of perseverance, determination, and love of freedom, country, and people that should not be forgotten. We still have much to learn and improve upon from her experience. Women—our capabilities, emotions, and drive—should not be overlooked or ignored, and Virginia Hall's story is a shining example of the consequences, both positive and negative, of this.

    Thank you to Edelweiss and Penguin for providing me with an advanced readers copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

    --

    I'll write a more detailed account later, but this book is an amazingly detailed account of the story of Virginia Hall, a formidable and trailblazing spy during World War II. Great representation of disability as well!

  • Jean

    I have never been a big history buff. Perhaps it is something that happens as one collects decades in one’s life, but if I had read more books like Sonia Purnell’s

    , I would have known that history is a fascinating subject. This non-fiction saga covers the incredibly successful, albeit unlikely, career of Virginia Hall, a woman who defied the odds by becoming a very reliable British Special Operation Executive agent in France in World War II.

    Virginia, called “Dindy” by

    I have never been a big history buff. Perhaps it is something that happens as one collects decades in one’s life, but if I had read more books like Sonia Purnell’s

    , I would have known that history is a fascinating subject. This non-fiction saga covers the incredibly successful, albeit unlikely, career of Virginia Hall, a woman who defied the odds by becoming a very reliable British Special Operation Executive agent in France in World War II.

    Virginia, called “Dindy” by her family, was born in Maryland in 1906 into a well-to-do family. Although she was highly intelligent, she found school boring. She craved adventure and travel. When she finished school, her dream was to become a diplomat. She applied but was rejected. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself would not intervene on her behalf. This was ironic because like Roosevelt, Dindy had a disability. She was an amputee, having lost her leg after it became severely infected following a hunting accident. She didn’t let that deter her, however, from pursuing her higher aspirations. At the time, there were only six women of 1500 foreign service workers. Rejection because of her gender became a common occurrence in Virginia’s career. Instead of pouting, she dug in her heels and made herself an even stronger candidate.

    Since the American government had rejected her, she signed on with the British. She was trained as a spy and became an expert at disguising herself, recruiting supporters and resistance fighters, and providing food, concealment, and safe transport to those fleeing the Nazis and the Abwehr. She formed incredible networks of defenders among the police, townsfolk, other agents, and even a madam and prostitutes in brothels. What she didn’t have, often, was cooperation or well-disciplined agents among her ranks. Some men, unfortunately, were resistant to taking orders from a woman, and she had no real authority to command them, for this was not her title. It was, however, her expertise and her calling.

    Ms. Purnell documents in great detail many of the missions and exploits undertaken by Virginia and the men with whom she worked. There were many successes as well as many failures. This does not read like any of the history books I grew up with in school. It almost reads like a novel. There are plots that were complex undertakings, and I found myself totally engrossed. Most were fraught with hunger, cold, sleep-deprivation, and ever-present danger. Virginia (and Cuthbert, her wooden prosthesis) endured it all and pulled herself together to keep on going. Amazing! Many of those who were her partners in the Resistance, sadly, did not survive. The descriptions of their fate are not pleasant to read. I marvel at the courage and determination of these men and women who gave so much for France. There are too many events to mention, but I do have one that impressed me the most: the jailbreak of the twelve SOE agents from Mauzac prison, a feat that was planned by Virginia and was thought to be impossible. Over time, she became a most-wanted person by the Germans, who first thought they were looking for a man.

    I am in awe of the research that went into the writing of this book. I took my time in reading it. I looked up French words and their pronunciations. I went back and forth and looked up code names in the List of Characters, as I got confused at times. What struck me most was how this one woman accomplished so much and wanted no credit. She only wanted to do more. She was “a woman of no importance...in concealing her identity from others, she had at last found what she really was and what she really could do. And how, in fighting for the liberty of another nation, she had found freedom for herself.”(page 308)

    Today, Virginia Hall is recognized as a pioneer who represents Service, one of the CIA’s six ethos. France and the Allies owe a great debt to Virginia Hall and those who struggled and fought with her.

    5 stars

  • Faith

    I recently read a novel about a couple who had worked with the French Resistance and it made me want to read a nonfiction account. “A Woman of No Importance” gave me more than I had hoped for. I am almost completely ignorant about the French Resistance but still it’s kind of shocking that I had never heard of the accomplishments of Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American woman who wanted to be a diplomat, rather than marrying well as her mother preferred, at a time when that wasn’t really done.

    I recently read a novel about a couple who had worked with the French Resistance and it made me want to read a nonfiction account. “A Woman of No Importance” gave me more than I had hoped for. I am almost completely ignorant about the French Resistance but still it’s kind of shocking that I had never heard of the accomplishments of Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American woman who wanted to be a diplomat, rather than marrying well as her mother preferred, at a time when that wasn’t really done. Her hopes were thwarted when she accidentally shot her leg while hunting in Turkey and lost her leg. However, her intelligence and drive led her to join the British Special Operations Unit, and her persistence made them send her to France.

    She went undercover as an American journalist and she managed to go everywhere and meet everyone and recruit people to the Resistance as she went. Her prosthetic leg made her stand out, but even so she was capable of assuming multiple identities in a single day. She was given a license to kill by her British handlers and she became extremely adept at organizing and carrying out clandestine operations and training participants. When her cover was blown she escaped over snow covered mountains. The British refused to send her back to France so she switched to America’s Office of Strategic Services (the OSS and precursor to the CIA) who sent her back to France before D-Day to lead a guerrilla campaign against the Nazis. After the war she worked for the CIA, which failed to utilize her unique skills. What can you expect from an institution that made its female employees wear white gloves to work, even if they had spent time disguised as a French peasant while they fought Nazis. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

    There weren’t any dull parts to this book and parts of it were quite cinematic. It really should be made into a movie and everyone should know about Virginia Hall.

  • Haley Nixt

    3.5*

    The content is 5 stars. This was an absolutely fascinating story, and I would love to go back in time and have dinner with Virginia Hall and just pump her for stories because damn. She would have some good stories.

    However, the reason I took off stars was the writing. While I finished the book in just a few days (this is a great subway read!) and it's very engaging while you're reading, it feels very surface level. I would have appreciated more time developing side characters besides two or

    3.5*

    The content is 5 stars. This was an absolutely fascinating story, and I would love to go back in time and have dinner with Virginia Hall and just pump her for stories because damn. She would have some good stories.

    However, the reason I took off stars was the writing. While I finished the book in just a few days (this is a great subway read!) and it's very engaging while you're reading, it feels very surface level. I would have appreciated more time developing side characters besides two or three who get particular attention. Towards the end, a lot of names were thrown around that the reader has already seen, and I had to really, really search my memory to remember how they had helped or hindered Virginia. I also would have appreciated more tactics, how did all of Virginia's mission fit into the larger scheme of the war. A lot of the time, the writing felt like it was skimming her story because it moved so quickly. A month would pass, and we would be told that Virginia had done a lot of work, but there was no real discussion of what that work was.

    But I really, really wish the author and editor would have chosen to integrate sources differently into the narrative. They're used as footnotes, and there's no reference in the text as to how the author acquired the information. For details such as numbers and troop movements, it doesn't matter as much, I don't think, because I assumed she took it from a report or other piece of information (though it would have been nice if the author integrated those in as well, with dates and places; I believe that would have made the narrative feel even more grounded).

    Where it really mattered was when the author attributed thoughts and feelings to Virginia. This didn't work for me because, as the author said, Virginia almost NEVER talked about her work as a spy. She was very private and she didn't like revisiting those parts of her life, either because it was bad memories or she didn't want to take glory for something that wasn't all that glorious. All of the author's information about her was secondhand, which makes sense because Virginia didn't leave much of a paper trail and she's also dead, so she couldn't be interviewed. When you read the acknowledgements, you're led to assume that a lot of the more personal details came from the author's extensive interviews with Virginia's niece. That's totally fine, she's an excellent source of information. I just wish that in the narrative there would have been a little distancing, even something like: "It's likely, based on discussions with her niece, who knew her well, that Virginia [felt/thought/etc.]..." The narrative is currently written as if the author knows, for sure, this is how Virginia was thinking and feeling at that exact moment, as if she had written it in a diary. But she didn't, and in the later chapters, when the niece is specifically mentioned, she says that Virginia almost never talked to her about her work. So why does the author phrase it like that?

    It is, admittedly, a very small thing, but I came away with the distinct impression that the author was putting words and feelings into Virginia's mouth. That, combined with the fact that when I closed the book I thought, "Well, that felt very surface-level", made me dock a few stars.

    tl;dr: The content is 5 stars, hands down; Virginia Hall is a badass and is one of the reasons why the Allies won WWII. The writing is closer to a 3, because sources weren't integrated, thoughts and feelings were attributed to Hall when we cannot say for certain she felt/thought those things, and it wanted to cover so much information that it never dug deep into certain topics (tactics, how Virginia's set up her contacts besides "talking").

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