Woman of No Importance (Purnell)

A Woman of No Importance:  The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II
Sonia Purnell, 2019
Penguin Publishing
368 pp.

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.

A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persistence helped win the war. 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. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Sonia Purnell is a British biographer and journalist who has worked at The Economist, Telegraph, and Sunday Times, all UK publications.

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win the War, is Purnell's most recent book and was published in 2019. Her previous book, Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill (2015, published as First Lady in the UK) was chosen as a book of the year by the Telegraph and Independent, and was a finalist for the Plutarch Award.

Purnell's first book, Just Boris: A Tale of Blonde Ambition (2011), was longlisted for the Orwell prize. The book is a biography of Boris Johnson, the colorful former Mayor of London, current member of Parliament, and outspoken Brexit supporter. (Adapted from the publisher.)

Book Reviews
[A] compelling saga of a remarkable woman whose persistence was honed early on by her battles against low gender expectations and later on by her disability.
USA Today

[R]eads like a detailed novel.… Purnell’s fascinating book supports her description of Hall’s life as a "Homeric tale" of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage.
Columbus Dispatch

Sonia Purnell has written a riveting account of Hall’s work as a ferociously courageous American spy.… [She] writes with compelling energy and fine detail.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

[V]ividly resurrects an underappreciated hero and delivers an enthralling story of wartime intrigue.… Purnell does a fine job of bringing Hall’s story to life. Fans of WWII history and women’s history will be riveted. Illus.
Publishers Weekly

Purnell's work is well researched, fast paced, and gives a captivating look at one of World War II's unsung heroes. This will interest readers intrigued by the history of espionage as well as women's and military history. —Crystal Goldman, Univ. of California, San Diego Lib.
Library Journal

(Starred review) Purnell’s writing is as precise and engaging as her research, and this book restores overdue attention to one of the world’s great war heroes. It’s a joy to read, and it will swell readers' hearts with pride.

A remarkable chronicle… [and] lively examination.… [I]f Hall had been a man… she would now be as famous as James Bond.… Meticulous research results in a significant biography of a trailblazer who now has a CIA building named after her.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE … and then take off on your own:

1. Sonia Purcell describes Virginia Hall's resistance work during World War II as "a Homeric tale of adventure, action and seemingly unfathomable courage." How would you describe Hall? What was it about her personality and inner character that attracted her to spy-craft—and what made her so adept at its practice?

2. Consider the danger involved involved in undercover operations—a field in which its participants are at high risk for capture, torture, and death. What drives people, both men and women, to take such dire risks and to play the high-stakes game of cat and mouse?

3. Purnell observers, "Dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into France was, on paper, an almost insane gamble." Almost insane? What was their thinking?

4. Talk about the good-old-boy office politics underlying some of the decisions to place under trained personnel in the field, and some of the fatalities those decisions led to.

5. It's almost as if Hall had a sixth sense, which repeatedly kept her out of the Nazis' clutches. Talk about her use of disguises, her ability to build trust across borders, her sudden appearances and just as sudden disappearances. What are some of the close calls in which she escaped capture? Do some episodes stand out more than others—in terms as being more daring, more thrilling, or more anxiety-drenching?

6. Discuss the many other individuals involved in the resistance network, those doing extraordinary work. Consider, for instance, Germaine Guerin. Or perhaps the woman who simply asks for three aspirins at a cafe.

7. What about Hall's post-war life in which she had to fight another type of tyranny: sexism? Discuss the offer of a low-level clerkship at the CIA despite Hall's brilliant performance in the field. Or recall the man who referred to Hall as a "gung-ho lady left over from OSS days overseas." Talk about the other women who made untold (literally) sacrifices for the Allied forces during the war. See our LitBlog post detailing some recent works hailing women's service.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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