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review 2020-12-11 05:17
A Woman of No Importance
A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

An outstanding story from start to finish.  I listened to the audio and the narrator did an outstanding job, making an already riveting story one that I wanted to just sit and listen to, rather than serving as just a diversion while in traffic.


Virginia Hall, by any standard measure of time, accomplishment, daring, intelligence or bravery, was a heroine.  Her gender makes no difference in this distinction, nor does her disability, but both render her accomplishments during WWII even more astounding.  

Sonia Purnell does an excellent job chronicling the life of Hall, in spite of what she admits upfront was a daunting process of historical research in the face of archive fires, classified intelligence in multiple countries, and Hall's own ingrained reticence to discuss her work or accept accolades for her contributions to ending the war.  Her speculations as to what might have happened during gaps in primary sources seem few, and the writing makes those speculations clear.  She also doesn't just rely solely on chronicling Virginia's life, but covers quite a bit of the story of the French Resistance, especially in Lyon, during the Vichy government, and the Nazi take-over leading up to the invasion of Normandy.


The history is at times romantic in true Bond style, terrifying, and heartbreaking.  The details of Vichy and Nazi interrogating techniques is NOT for the feint of heart, and the post-war years for Virginia were a mixture of recognition of her talents and accomplishments, and a disgusting record of 50's misogyny.  I appreciated that the author made the effort to be accurate, not falling into the easy route of railing against all the discrimination and not giving time to those men in the intelligence and government sectors that stood up and gladly gave her the credit she earned and deserved.  Purnell tries to be balanced, and I think she succeeds brilliantly, pointing out the CIA's mistakes and their own efforts to take responsibility for them.


I'm thankful I found this book, and I'm thankful Purnell wrote it, giving men and women around the world another authentic role model and hero to look to.  I can't help but wonder, though, how Hall herself would view this fine work.  I hope, in spite of her life-long secrecy and desire to remain unknown, she'd appreciate her life's achievements as the valuable legacy they are to future generations.

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text 2020-12-03 08:06
Reading progress update: I've listened 380 out of 780 minutes.
A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

I’m 46% of the way through, and really, it’s a riveting book, and Juliet Stevenson does an excellent job with the narration. Her American accent leaves something to be desired, but then again Hugh Laurie is the only Brit I’ve ever heard who can nail an American accent, so no points off.

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review 2020-05-28 18:39
A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

This is an engaging book about a totally badass historical figure, though I’m left unconvinced that the author really had enough information to write a book about her.

Virginia Hall was an American woman who, during WWII, worked undercover in France for first the British and later the American intelligence agencies. She helped organize and arm the French Resistance, spied for the Allies, and later even directed guerilla activities herself. She faced incredible dangers to do so, and with about two years behind enemy lines, spent much more time in France than most operatives, despite the comrades regularly being hauled off by the Gestapo to be tortured and sent to death camps. She had plenty of adventures and near-misses, including once having to escape over the Pyrenees on foot in winter, an even more impressive feat given that she walked on a wooden leg after shooting herself in the foot years before.

Hall is certainly an impressive figure, and I am glad to have learned about her and enjoyed the book. After the first couple of chapters early on, relating the first 30-odd years of her life before sneaking into occupied France, the book is overwhelmingly focused on high-tension WWII exploits, and written in a fluid style that makes for quick reading. I’ve read my share of WWII books considering this is not my favorite subject, but I learned some new things here about the French Resistance, and the book introduces readers to numerous impressive men and women who risked and sometimes lost their lives fighting the Nazis.

That said, Hall herself – no surprise here – was secretive, and refused to share war stories even in later years with the niece to whom she was close, so I have some questions about where all the author’s information comes from. In particular, the author is quick to describe Hall’s thoughts and feelings about events without attributing them to any particular source, leaving me to suspect she made them up. Also, that same reticence on the part of the book’s subject left me confused about just how Hall was accomplishing the things she did. Somehow, Hall would arrive in a place where she knew no one, and despite Purnell’s repeated insistence that Hall was security-oriented and had no patience for loose-lipped operatives, within as little as two days she would have some new person apparently in on the secret, risking their life to accompany her on dangerous missions, while she risked hers in trusting them. Obviously Hall was an excellent judge of character since this virtually always worked out, but the book doesn’t give any sense of her methods, probably because the author doesn’t know.

I also came away with the sense that Purnell was perhaps a little too enamored of her subject, heavily criticizing anyone Hall didn’t get along with. It’s interesting that Hall’s career never really went anywhere except in occupied France: before the war she largely seems to have been held back in her attempted diplomatic career by gender prejudice, and it was at least partially the same story afterwards in her years with the CIA. However, I couldn’t entirely share the author’s indignation with the CIA’s failure to fully utilize Hall’s talents when during the decades after WWII the agency was busy toppling democratically-elected progressive leaders in Latin America to replace them with right-wingers who were friendly to American business interests and whose torture and murder of dissenters was pretty similar to the Nazis’ methods. While Hall’s having a desk job during those years doesn’t exempt her from her share of moral culpability – which Purnell never acknowledges – it at least lets the book focus instead on the straightforward excitement of the French Resistance years, with everything after that summed up in a single chapter at the end.

As an interesting and enjoyable book that introduced me to an impressive woman I would not otherwise have known about, I found this worth reading. But it’s sufficiently biased and speculative that I find it a bit difficult to recommend.

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review 2019-10-01 01:27
A book about a woman of valor!
A Woman of No Importance - Sonia Purnell

A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell, author; Juliet Stevenson narrator

Virginia Hall was a woman with a singular goal. As a United States citizen, when World War II started, she was determined to do her part to defeat Germany in its effort to obtain world domination. However, a few years before, while hunting, she forgot to set the safety on her weapon, and she accidentally shot herself, resulting in the amputation of her leg. Although she was fitted with a wooden leg which she handled very well, when she attempted to work with the Armed Forces, they did not want her help, nor did they believe that she could successfully accomplish anything in the war effort with her disability. In addition, she was a woman and work in the field was generally designated for men. Women were thought to be suited for different kinds of work and she was offered administrative jobs, but nothing to excite or challenge her. She wanted to do paramilitary work, organizing and working with guerillas and the resistance. Rejected by the United States, she sought work in England. When, at first, they rejected her also, she went to France and became an ambulance driver in the war zone. Eventually, however, she went to work for the British, SOE, the Special Operations Executive. She eventually proved herself very valuable, but as a woman, she never truly achieved the honor or glory to which she aspired or which she deserved. She was often passed over for missions that were given to men to execute, after she planned them. Still, she never really did seek recognition or glory. She only sought to organize the resistance movement to successfully aid in shortening the war and eventually prevent Hitler’s success.

Virginia worked in France with several identities and disguises. She organized bands of resisters, often losing many of them when they were discovered and often being tricked by those who betrayed them. Each loss was felt like a personal blow to her. Still, for the most part, she successfully impeded Germany’s efforts and helped to liberate Paris. Most of her effort was expended in the area under the control of Marshall Petain who ruled the Vichy government, an area that was promised complete freedom, but eventually was under the complete control of Hitler.

Virginia, known as Diane, La Madone, and other names, assumed various identities and disguises, always successfully disguising her disability, age and beauty. She distributed money, food and weapons, organzed guerilla groups and their efforts at sabotage, and organized unbelievably dangerous and difficult rescues of prisoners. Her own rescue from prison was daring as well. She was unafraid of danger and actually seemed to relish it. She risked her own life hiding and operating a radio that she used to pass coded information which was invaluable to the Allies.

Virginia arranged false papers, false identities, safe houses and dangerous escape routes. Often seeming superhuman in her efforts, once even hiking out of snow covered mountains with her artificial leg that she called Cuthbert, Virginia was a largely unsung heroine. However, though she herself, preferred not to be publicly lauded or given awards, she never did receive the honor or promotions she truly deserved. She did eventually achieve a Captain’s rank and a leadership role that enabled her to lead the resistance groups and their efforts more effectively. In addition to working for the SOE, she also worked for the State Department and the CIA in America. She was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by President Truman for her work with the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services which was the forerunner of the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency. Late in life, she found love with Paul Goillot, a fellow resistance worker from Britain. Although smaller in stature than Virginia, and less educated, they were very compatible and eventually married.

The book contained too many names to keep straight without some kind of format to keep track of them, however the narrator did such an excellent job in her reading of it, that the possible tedious nature of the book as it described similar situations again and again was mitigated. Still it felt very long with its main theme concentrating on the lack of women’s rights in the armed forces, and in general. She was a woman scorned by the system, not because she was unqualified, but because of her gender. Her indomitable spirit won out each time as she constantly battled and persevered to accomplish her ultimate ambitious efforts. She was incredibly brave and far heartier than most men and women that were her equals. She was an asset to the war effort.

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review 2019-08-28 10:07




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

Sonia Purnell  

Hardcover: 368 pages

Publisher: Viking (April 9, 2019)

ISBN-10: 073522529X

ISBN-13: 978-0735225299     



This summer turned out to be my unexpected exploration into female participants in the French resistance during World War II. It began when I read D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose as well as Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson. Now, I've read a long-overdue, in-depth biography of American spy Virginia Hall by Sonia Purnell. I must concur with all the other complimentary reviewers who gave this history five star reviews.


I first read a short but very complimentary biography of Virginia Hall in Emily Yellen'sOur Mother's War: American Women at Home and at the Front During World War II (2004). In fact, Hall was the premiere lady spy in Yellen's overview that only glancingly looked at behind-the-lines operatives in France. Of course, Purnell's tome reaches far beyond the sort of general information Yellen had access to.


Purnell's years of research is an impressive achievement considering the gaps in available files and the likelihood many of Hall's exploits were never recorded by anyone. Part of this oversight is likely based on the reality Hall's labors were so clandestine there was every reason not to keep files on her work. Equally important is the fact female agents were not the norm and there was a widespread prejudice against women being involved in the war at all except as support staff, code-breakers, ambulance-drivers, the like.


In the case of Hall, her persistence in breaking through the glass ceiling is even more impressive when you realize she was raised and groomed for a life as well-off--and married--woman in high society, not a rough-and-tumble agent living on the lam and in often dire circumstances.  Add to that that the lower half of her left leg had been amputated leaving Hall a woman with a disability that could have dimmed her prospects--if not for that determined, iron will of hers.


Because of that leg and her age, Hall wasn't the most likely covert agent for the Gestapo to hunt. She was versatile in her use of disguises, using her disability as a way to throw the hounds off her trail. All she really couldn't do was run. But she could hike across a treacherous mountain trail in the snowy Pyrenees. And that was just one exploit to admire in Hall's many-faceted career.


Another woman to admire is biographer Sonia Purnell who not only keeps a fast-paced, detailed story going, but she keeps reader interest with her scattered indications of what is to come, especially the consequences of certain events. It becomes very clear Virginia Hall was a stand-out officer during World War II and could have become a valuable asset in the CIA had the agency not been populated by the Father Knows Best  mentality of the Cold War years.


So readers learn much more than the day-to-day operations of Hall's covert actions and I often wondered where Purnell found so many minute details of conversations, movements, relationships, etc. As with the other books I've read this summer, I ended up feeling a sense of shame that there was a time when women, no matter how talented, Creative, motivated or successful, just didn't get their due and rightful recognition. Until now.




My July 1, 2019 review of D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II by Sarah Rose first appeared at BookPleasures.com:





My July 25th review of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler by Lynne Olson first appeared at BookPleasures.com:




This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Aug. 26 at BookPleasures.com:



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