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A Woman of No Importance
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A Woman of No Importance
The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
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A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERChosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times...
A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLERChosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times...
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  • A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
    Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London
    "Excellent...This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down." — The New York Times Book Review
    "A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people — and a little resistance." - NPR
    A never-before-told story of Virginia Hall, the American spy who changed the course of World War II, from the author of Clementine.

    In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her."
    The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill's "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and—despite her prosthetic leg—helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it.
    Virginia established vast spy networks throughout France, called weapons and explosives down from the skies, and became a linchpin for the Resistance. Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped through a death-defying hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown. But she plunged back in, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day.
    Based on new and extensive research, Sonia Purnell has for the first time uncovered the full secret life of Virginia Hall—an astounding and inspiring story of heroism, spycraft, resistance, and personal triumph over shocking adversity. A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persistence helped win the war.

Excerpts-

  • From the book Prologue

    France was falling. Burned‑out cars, once strapped high with treasured possessions, were nosed crazily into ditches. Their beloved cargoes of dolls, clocks, and mirrors lay smashed around them and along mile upon mile of unfriendly road. Their owners, young and old, sprawled across the hot dust, were groaning or already silent. Yet the hordes just kept streaming past them, a never‑ending line of hunger and exhaustion too fearful to stop for days on end.

    Ten million women, children, and old men were on the move, all flee‑ ing Hitler's tanks pouring across the border from the east and the north. Entire cities had uprooted themselves in a futile bid to escape the Nazi blitzkrieg that threatened to engulf them. The fevered talk was of German soldiers stripped to the waist in jubilation at the ease of their conquest. The air was thick with smoke and the stench of the dead. The babies had no milk, and the aged fell where they stood. The horses drawing overladen old farm carts sagged and snarled in their sweat‑drenched agony. The French heat wave of May 1940 was witness to this, the largest refugee exo‑ dus of all time.

    Day after day a solitary moving vehicle weaved its way through the crowd with a striking young woman at the wheel. Private Virginia Hall often ran low on fuel and medicines but still pressed on in her French army ambulance toward the advancing enemy. She persevered even when the German Stukas came screaming down to drop 110‑pound bombs onto the convoys all around her, torching the cars and cratering the roads. Even when fighter planes swept over the treetops to machine‑gun the ditches where women and children were trying to take cover from the carnage. Even though French soldiers were deserting their units, abandoning their weapons, and running away, some in their tanks. Even when her left hip was shot with pain from continually pressing down on the clutch with her prosthetic foot.

    Now, at the age of thirty‑four, her mission marked a turning point after years of cruel rejection. For her own sake as much as for the casualties she was picking up from the battlefields and ferrying to the hospital, she could not fail again. There were many reasons why she was willingly jeopardizing her life far from home in aid of a foreign country, when millions of others were giving up. Perhaps foremost among them was that it had been so long since she had felt so thrillingly alive. Disgusted at the cowardice of the deserters, she could not understand why they would not continue the fight. But then she had so little to lose. The French still remembered sacrificing a third of their young menfolk to the Great War, and a nation of widows and orphans was in no mood for more bloodshed. Virginia, though, in‑ tended to go on to the end, wherever the battle took her. She was prepared to take whatever risks, face down any dangers. Total war against the Third Reich might perversely offer her one last hope of personal peace.

    Yet even this was as nothing compared with what was to come in a life that drew out into a Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage. Virginia Hall's service in the France of summer 1940 was merely an apprenticeship for a near suicide mission against the tyranny of the Nazis and their puppets in France. She helped to pioneer a daredevil role of espionage, sabotage, and subversion behind enemy lines in an era when women barely featured in the prism of heroism, when their part in combat was confined to the supportive and palliative. When they were just expected to look nice and act obedient and let the men do the heavy lifting. When disabled...

Reviews-

  • Library Journal

    November 15, 2018

    Her gender and prosthetic leg kept Virginia Hall out of the U.S. foreign service, but she wrested her way into Winston Churchill's famously break-the-rules Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare and became the first woman deployed to occupied France. Eventually, the Gestapo called her the most dangerous of Allied spies. From the author of the best-booked Clementine.

    Copyright 2018 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Kirkus

    January 15, 2019
    A remarkable chronicle of a courageous woman who worked undercover for British and American intelligence in occupied France during World War II and had to fight for every ounce of recognition she deserved.Throughout this lively examination of the life of Virginia Hall (1906-1982), British biographer and journalist Purnell (Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, 2015, etc.) shows how, if Hall had been a man, dropping undercover in and out of occupied Vichy, Paris, and Lyon, setting up safe houses, and coordinating couriers for the Resistance, she would now be as famous as James Bond. However, this daughter of a well-off Baltimore family, who attended Radcliffe and Barnard before finishing her education in Europe, dreamed of a career in the American Foreign Service--but over and over she was relegated to the secretary's desk. In 1933, a freak hunting accident in Turkey left her with an amputated left leg, a horrendous experience that only seemed to steel her resolve to live her life as she pleased. The outbreak of Nazi aggression in 1939 and subsequent invasion of France prompted Hall to volunteer to drive ambulances for the Service de Santé des Armées. Then, a fortuitous meeting with an agent of the Special Operations Executive, the fledgling British secret service, sealed her fate. Impressed by her courage, independence, and poise, the SOE tasked Hall with returning to occupied France to help coordinate the work of local Resistance leaders and future SOE agents. Her appointment, writes the author of her consistently fascinating subject, "was an outstanding act of faith in her abilities, which had for so long been belittled or ignored." Hall's daring efforts in the breakout of Resistance prisoners in the Vichy-run internment camp at Mauzac, in March 1942, was a stunning achievement considering the enormous danger of getting caught and tortured by the Gestapo. Later in the narrative, the author amply shows how her later CIA work was only grudgingly recognized and celebrated.Meticulous research results in a significant biography of a trailblazer who now has a CIA building named after her.

    COPYRIGHT(2019) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 18, 2019
    British journalist Purnell (Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill) vividly resurrects an underappreciated hero and delivers an enthralling story of wartime intrigue. Virginia Hall, a spirited young woman from a once-wealthy Baltimore family, embarked on an overseas career as a clerk with the State Department in 1931 after finding that women were not welcome in the Foreign Service. Despite impressive work, she was barred from taking the diplomatic corps entrance exam for unexplained reasons. Two years later, a gunshot wound in a hunting accident cost her half of her left leg. Despite her disability, Hall drove ambulances for the French army after the war started. An undercover British agent noticed her, and she was hired by the Special Operations Executive to recruit Resistance workers in France. Posing as a newspaper reporter, Hall established a vast underground network that pushed back against the German invaders. In late 1942, with her cover blown, Hall escaped France via a dangerous trek across the Pyrenees to Spain. When the SOE refused to send her back to France, she joined the American Office of Strategic Services to facilitate D-Day operations. Though the broader contours of Hall’s story will be familiar to those who’ve read about wartime France, Purnell does a fine job of bringing Hall’s story to life. Fans of WWII history and women’s history will be riveted. Illus.

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