Earlier this month, I was called to jury duty. I must admit, I thought about trying to get out of it on the grounds that I am under deadline on this book.* But I just couldn’t do it. I believe in the importance of the jury system. And I have spent the last few years thinking about the destruction of of the rule of law in Nazi Germany. So, I grumbled about the loss of a day. I prayed that I wouldn’t end up on a jury and lose more than a day. And I thanked the powers that regulate civic duty that I was assigned to a downtown court instead of one in the distant suburbs.
All of which is a long lead-in to the fact that I decided Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II was the perfect thing to read in the jurors’ waiting room. The subject was adjacent to what I’m working on, but not so close that I needed to take notes. And by all accounts, it was a gripping read.
I am, as is so often the case, late to the game. Many of you may have already read Purnell’s bestselling account of Virgina Hall,** the American woman who talked her way into Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) and was the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines—prosthetic leg and all.
A Woman of No Importance is a fascinating biography, with the tone of a thriller. Purnell starts with Hall as, in fact, a woman of no importance who had opted out of the life of a Baltimore socialite and been repeatedly frustrated in her attempts to join the diplomatic corps as more than a secretary. She traces Hall’s unlikely acceptance by SOE—in large part because the newly formed agency was desperate—and her invisible rise as a covert operator working with the French resistance in spite of repeated bumbling and failures on the part of SOE.
Because these days I read narrative non-fiction from a writer’s viewpoint,*** I was struck by the skill with which she weaves the larger story of World War II into Hall’s story. She consistently gives the reader the information they**** need, without dumping a chunk of information that disrupts the story line. It is harder to do than you might think.
If you’re interested in World War II, spies, spies in World War II, or forgotten women who did amazing things, this one’s for you.
*Probably not a valid excuse, now that I think about it.
**After all, lots of people reading (or at least buying) a book is what makes a book a best-seller.
***A habit I hope to ditch after I recover from writing the current book. It may require serious rehab involving sitting on the rear deck with a pitcher of ice tea, a stack of really well-written books, and no way to make notes in the margins.
****I hear some of you screaming and getting ready to send me emails about this usage. The big style manuals all gave their blessing to the use of they as an indefinite singular pronoun several years ago. If it’s good enough for the Chicago Manual of Style, it’s good enough for me.
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Come back on Monday for three questions and an answer with historian Leah Chang.