I had never heard of Virginia Hall before the release of Sonia Purnell’s biography A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. Virginia Hall would be okay with her anonymity since she never sought fame or recompense. In spite of her heroics and brilliant tactics as a spy for the British SOE, and later for the American OSS, Virginia Hall “was pigeonholed as a disabled woman of no importance.” She was often under-utilized and always under-estimated simply because she was a woman in a man’s war. Yet, she had a fierce drive to exceed in helping the Allies build up the French Resistance and overcome Nazism. In this compelling biography, Sonia Purnell shows the reader why Virginia Hall’s life exemplifies: “How adversity and rejection and suffering can sometimes turn, in the end, into resolve and ultimately triumph, even against the backdrop of a horrifying conflict that casts its long shadow over the way we live today.”
Virginia Hall was a real-life, kick-ass, wonder woman!
In spite of being an amputee, Virginia Hall was responsible for prodigious activities that had a great impact on the Allies’ success in France. She organized, trained, and armed resistance groups in spite of their internal feuding and machoism; she set up safe-houses; planned ambushes, blowing up bridges, and a prison break of twelve British agents from Mauzac prison camp. Even though she was disabled, she was able to walk across a mountain pass to escape the Nazis. Her organizational abilities were beyond compare. Klaus Barbie was intent on finding and destroying her, calling her “the enemy’s most dangerous spy.” She is remembered by the males who worked under her for teaching “tolerance, friendship without calculation and a true notion of service to one’s country.”
After the war, Virginia went to work for the newly formed CIA. However, she was the subject of workplace unfairness because she was a woman with strong opinions. She was often unhappy with her assignments that would relegate her to a boring desk job. Her better ideas were given to male counterparts to carry-out. There are six facets to today’s CIA ethos with Service being the first. Virginia was chosen to represent Service, but the CIA failed to identify her as a “trailblazer” officer who shaped the agency’s history. Her shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as “a textbook case of discrimination.”
The author has done an excellent job of detailing Virginia’s numerous activities. There was a cast of many characters that made it hard to keep up with at times. Even Virginia’s artificial leg had its own name. Fortunately, there is a list at the beginning of the book that gives the main player’s names and code names.
4.5-Stars. Bookclub recommended. This is the December 2019 – January 2020 non-fiction group selection for the Goodreads Reading For Pleasure Book Club of which I am a member. If you are on Goodreads, I would appreciate it if you would “like” my review of this book on that site.