Author: Sonia Purnell
Source: from publisher for review
Summary: An incredible, exciting story about an inspiring, dedicated spy.
This is the story of one of the most impressive people I’ve ever heard of. Despite being an American woman with a disability, Virgnia Hall was one of the first spies of the British Special Operations Executive(SOE) aka “the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare”. By surviving a devastating early round-up of SOE agents, she was largely responsible for establishing an SOE presence in occupied France. She recruited agents from all walks of life. She executed some of the most daring rescue operations of the war. She risked her own life time and again for others. And through all of this, she fought for the ability to keep doing her job as various superiors doubted her abilities. I don’t know that I’ve heard of anyone else I’ve admired as much for their determination and daring.
As you can probably tell from my summary, I thought this was a pretty incredible story. Truly a case of fact being more unbelievable than fiction and at least as entertaining! The writing was descriptive and engaging. It reminded me of Eric Larson, except author Sonia Purnell did a better job not making things up and noting where the facts were unclear. Her judicious use of direct quotes made this story feel immediate and true. There seem to be some delightful quotes available about the SOE and Virginia. Several made me laugh out loud! Unfortunately, in my review copy, the selection of quotes which had citations seemed random. I’d have liked for every direct quote to be paired with a reference. This didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story though!
I loved that this was the story of a woman who was one of the first and most impressive spies of any gender during WWII. I did sometimes wonder if the author was leaning a little too hard into the lone genius myth though. I’m sure Virginia’s incredible successes did help convince the SOE to keep recruiting women and to look for other spies with her level of professionalism and lack of ego. Direct quotes make it clear many of her colleagues held her in the highest regard. However, I think the author’s emphasis on Virginia’s exceptionalism occasionally does a disservice to the women on both sides who served in every military capacity you might think of. I love books like this that shine a light on women who have been left out of many previous histories, but at this point I’ve read enough histories like this that it’s clear exceptional woman are not such an exception.
That’s a small complaint though and one that is common to many biographies which like to emphasize the importance of their subject. Overall, I loved this story and will definitely be keeping my copy to lend out to anyone I can convince to read it.