Finding Inspiration in the Past

A Woman of No Importance

Star Rating
Reviewer's Rating
Apr 1, 2020

The past two months of quarantine shutdown have been bizarre to say the least. Surprised by how hard it's been to focus on simple tasks and know how to deal with whatever each day might bring, I turned to another time in history where the whole world was under threat and people had to deal with a cloud of confusion that hung over everything--World War II. Obviously COVID-19 is not the same as WWII by any means, but I was inspired and encouraged to read the stories of how women in particular faced the challenges of such a world-impacting crisis.

I think my favorite book was A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell, which reveals the incredible story of Virginia Hall, an American-born British SOE spy working with the resistance in France. While quite a few of the WWII biographies about women tend to list off a bunch of information, Purnell actually weaves the details of Hall's service into a compelling story. From her pre-war hunting mishap that left her with a prosthetic leg she named Cuthbert to her clever persistence that made her one of Germany's Most Wanted, I was captivated by her story and surprised I'd never heard of her before.

One interesting thing I noted -- in 10 books about different female WWII spies, there was very little crossover. In the Special Operations Executive (SOE)--which was the secret World War II intelligence agency created by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940 to help resistance movements in German-occupied nations--only 39 of the agents were women. So it seems surprising that hardly any overlapped - and yet it shows how secret each small cell had to be, separated from all the others, to save lives if captured. But, some did overlap, and I enjoyed when a familiar agent popped up in the next book I read.

I learned about Madame Fourcade, an incredible French woman who led France's largest spy network; Pearl Witherington, whose story (literally an interview transcript) reads like hearing your favorite elderly aunt tell you unbelievable war stories over tea; Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne, two sisters with very different experiences during and after the war but both equally brave; Odette Sansom, one of the most publicly acknowledged and acclaimed female spies; Elizebeth Friedman, known as the first American female cryptanalyst.

Several books cover multiple women--D-Day Girls (British SOE spies helping French resistance), Code Girls (American code breakers), Women Heroes of World War II | The Pacific Theater (women in various roles who braved the war in the Pacific). These helped me get a broader sense of what was going on, but because of that couldn't always go as in-depth as the single-person biographies, which I mostly preferred.

A few other standouts on my journey--Corrie Ten Boom's autobiography The Hiding Place, which tells her remarkable story of being an "average" Dutch woman who chose to save Jews, was sentenced to Ravensbrück concentration camp, and survived; The Unwomanly Face of War that shares the everyday human experiences of Russian women who served as soldiers, nurses, wives, and mothers, which I could only listen to in chunks (I highly recommend the audio version), because it's so emotionally raw; and the stunning novel in verse White Rose that tells the story of Sophie Scholl, the German college student who fought the Nazis through nonviolence and was hung for it (do note this is fiction based on fact).

Again, WWII and COVID-19 are not the same, but during both people have had to deal with loss and confusion, have had opportunities to reach out and support others, have had to make quick decisions and deal with all kinds of emotions. Hearing the stories of real women who lived during that hard time, helped me consider this time with a clearer mind and hopefully a kinder heart. And knowing that many of these women's stories have only come to light in recent years makes me wonder how many brave and inspiring stories are happening around the world today that aren't yet getting the recognition they deserve.

While I'm normally a fiction reader, knowing the good stories of real people matters. Hope you can find some inspiring lives to read up on in the coming weeks and months--and share the stories of people you know, too (you included)!

For easier access, I created a Brave Women of WWII reading list that mostly includes e-versions. And, if you're more of a fiction fan like me, consider eAudiobooks for nonfiction because it helps me focus on info rather than the faults with writing/plotting that can make biographies drier than novels.

Reviewed by Bet M
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