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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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The never-before-told story of one woman's heroism that changed the course of the Second World War In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman--rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg--who talke The never-before-told story of one woman's heroism that changed the course of the Second World War In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman--rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg--who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill's "ministry of ungentlemanly warfare," and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France. Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the "Madonna of the Resistance," coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had "more lives to save," she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell's signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persistence helped win the war.


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The never-before-told story of one woman's heroism that changed the course of the Second World War In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman--rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg--who talke The never-before-told story of one woman's heroism that changed the course of the Second World War In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." This spy was Virginia Hall, a young American woman--rejected from the foreign service because of her gender and her prosthetic leg--who talked her way into the spy organization deemed Churchill's "ministry of ungentlemanly warfare," and, before the United States had even entered the war, became the first woman to deploy to occupied France. Virginia Hall was one of the greatest spies in American history, yet her story remains untold. Just as she did in Clementine, Sonia Purnell uncovers the captivating story of a powerful, influential, yet shockingly overlooked heroine of the Second World War. At a time when sending female secret agents into enemy territory was still strictly forbidden, Virginia Hall came to be known as the "Madonna of the Resistance," coordinating a network of spies to blow up bridges, report on German troop movements, arrange equipment drops for Resistance agents, and recruit and train guerilla fighters. Even as her face covered WANTED posters throughout Europe, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped with her life in a grueling hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown, and her associates all imprisoned or executed. But, adamant that she had "more lives to save," she dove back in as soon as she could, organizing forces to sabotage enemy lines and back up Allied forces landing on Normandy beaches. Told with Purnell's signature insight and novelistic flare, A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persistence helped win the war.

30 review for A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II

  1. 4 out of 5

    Diane S ☔

    I love the fact that in recent years, more and more formidable women are being brought out of shadows of obscurity, by wonderful authors. That their rightful place in history is being applauded and restored, at last recognized for their talents and bravery. Virginia Hall is one such woman, an American who was the first woman sent by the allies to set up cells and send back information, as part of the French Resistance. She worked with a major handicap, one prosthetic leg, which gave her a very re I love the fact that in recent years, more and more formidable women are being brought out of shadows of obscurity, by wonderful authors. That their rightful place in history is being applauded and restored, at last recognized for their talents and bravery. Virginia Hall is one such woman, an American who was the first woman sent by the allies to set up cells and send back information, as part of the French Resistance. She worked with a major handicap, one prosthetic leg, which gave her a very recognizable walk. She ended the war being one of the most wanted women by the Germans, but this did not stop her. She changed her walk, her looks and set up operations that were integral to the allied forces in retaking France. At one time she has 400 Resistance volunteers, running missions which she herself planned. At wars end she was not treated fairly, her talents not used to their full capacity, her work little recognized. She would be confined to a desk in the newly formed CIA. She is, however, now recognized, new agents are taught about her, her methods in France in recruiting are ones we used in the middle East, and a hall at Langley bears her name. It's a shame this wasn't done in her lifetime.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Haley

    3.5* The content is 5 stars. This was an absolutely fascinating story, and I would love to go back in time and have dinner with Virginia Hall and just pump her for stories because damn. She would have some good stories. However, the reason I took off stars was the writing. While I finished the book in just a few days (this is a great subway read!) and it's very engaging while you're reading, it feels very surface level. I would have appreciated more time developing side characters besides two or 3.5* The content is 5 stars. This was an absolutely fascinating story, and I would love to go back in time and have dinner with Virginia Hall and just pump her for stories because damn. She would have some good stories. However, the reason I took off stars was the writing. While I finished the book in just a few days (this is a great subway read!) and it's very engaging while you're reading, it feels very surface level. I would have appreciated more time developing side characters besides two or three who get particular attention. Towards the end, a lot of names were thrown around that the reader has already seen, and I had to really, really search my memory to remember how they had helped or hindered Virginia. I also would have appreciated more tactics, how did all of Virginia's mission fit into the larger scheme of the war. A lot of the time, the writing felt like it was skimming her story because it moved so quickly. A month would pass, and we would be told that Virginia had done a lot of work, but there was no real discussion of what that work was. But I really, really wish the author and editor would have chosen to integrate sources differently into the narrative. They're used as footnotes, and there's no reference in the text as to how the author acquired the information. For details such as numbers and troop movements, it doesn't matter as much, I don't think, because I assumed she took it from a report or other piece of information (though it would have been nice if the author integrated those in as well, with dates and places; I believe that would have made the narrative feel even more grounded). Where it really mattered was when the author attributed thoughts and feelings to Virginia. This didn't work for me because, as the author said, Virginia almost NEVER talked about her work as a spy. She was very private and she didn't like revisiting those parts of her life, either because it was bad memories or she didn't want to take glory for something that wasn't all that glorious. All of the author's information about her was secondhand, which makes sense because Virginia didn't leave much of a paper trail and she's also dead, so she couldn't be interviewed. When you read the acknowledgements, you're led to assume that a lot of the more personal details came from the author's extensive interviews with Virginia's niece. That's totally fine, she's an excellent source of information. I just wish that in the narrative there would have been a little distancing, even something like: "It's likely, based on discussions with her niece, who knew her well, that Virginia [felt/thought/etc.]..." The narrative is currently written as if the author knows, for sure, this is how Virginia was thinking and feeling at that exact moment, as if she had written it in a diary. But she didn't, and in the later chapters, when the niece is specifically mentioned, she says that Virginia almost never talked to her about her work. So why does the author phrase it like that? It is, admittedly, a very small thing, but I came away with the distinct impression that the author was putting words and feelings into Virginia's mouth. That, combined with the fact that when I closed the book I thought, "Well, that felt very surface-level", made me dock a few stars. tl;dr: The content is 5 stars, hands down; Virginia Hall is a badass and is one of the reasons why the Allies won WWII. The writing is closer to a 3, because sources weren't integrated, thoughts and feelings were attributed to Hall when we cannot say for certain she felt/thought those things, and it wanted to cover so much information that it never dug deep into certain topics (tactics, how Virginia's set up her contacts besides "talking").

  3. 4 out of 5

    Faith

    I recently read a novel about a couple who had worked with the French Resistance and it made me want to read a nonfiction account. “A Woman of No Importance” gave me more than I had hoped for. I am almost completely ignorant about the French Resistance but still it’s kind of shocking that I had never heard of the accomplishments of Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American woman who wanted to be a diplomat, rather than marrying well as her mother preferred, at a time when that wasn’t really done. I recently read a novel about a couple who had worked with the French Resistance and it made me want to read a nonfiction account. “A Woman of No Importance” gave me more than I had hoped for. I am almost completely ignorant about the French Resistance but still it’s kind of shocking that I had never heard of the accomplishments of Virginia Hall. Virginia was an American woman who wanted to be a diplomat, rather than marrying well as her mother preferred, at a time when that wasn’t really done. Her hopes were thwarted when she accidentally shot her leg while hunting in Turkey and lost her leg. However, her intelligence and drive led her to join the British Special Operations Unit, and her persistence made them send her to France. She went undercover as an American journalist and she managed to go everywhere and meet everyone and recruit people to the Resistance as she went. Her prosthetic leg made her stand out, but even so she was capable of assuming multiple identities in a single day. She was given a license to kill by her British handlers and she became extremely adept at organizing and carrying out clandestine operations and training participants. When her cover was blown she escaped over snow covered mountains. The British refused to send her back to France so she switched to America’s Office of Strategic Services (the OSS and precursor to the CIA) who sent her back to France before D-Day to lead a guerrilla campaign against the Nazis. After the war she worked for the CIA, which failed to utilize her unique skills. What can you expect from an institution that made its female employees wear white gloves to work, even if they had spent time disguised as a French peasant while they fought Nazis. She was awarded the Croix de Guerre. There weren’t any dull parts to this book and parts of it were quite cinematic. It really should be made into a movie and everyone should know about Virginia Hall.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Chrissie

    Virginia Hall (April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982) was an American spy, working first with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and then later with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, primarily in France. After the war she was honored with awards in the US, France and Britain receiving the American Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the French Croix de Guerre and made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The DSC was the only one awarde Virginia Hall (April 6, 1906 – July 8, 1982) was an American spy, working first with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and then later with the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, primarily in France. After the war she was honored with awards in the US, France and Britain receiving the American Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), the French Croix de Guerre and made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE). The DSC was the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War Two. After the war Virginia worked at the Special Activities Division of the newly established CIA. The book covers in great detail her involvement in war efforts in France. The book starts with Virginia’s youth, telling of how she came to study in Paris and in so doing fell in love with France. Hunting in Turkey she accidentally shot her own leg and in so doing was thus forced to wear a prosthesis. This never stopped her from fulfilling her goals. After the German invasion of France in 1940, she became determined to return France to the French. That she was a woman, that she had only one fully functional leg didn’t matter. On one occasion, escaping from France, she crossed the Pyrenees in winter, a difficult feat for a healthy person. We learn in great detail of all her missions, working first with the SOE and then later the OSS. Working closely with French partisans, she organized guerrilla units and missions. Nuns, prostitutes and a wide array of individuals from different social classes were those she had contact with. She saw that her compatriots were freed from prisons. Safe houses needed to be established. Radio messages had to be transmitted. All aspects of each mission were planned in detail by her. Bridges were to be blown up, rail lines destroyed and telephone lines cut. All communications were to be severed. German convoys were targeted. Delivery of ammunition, supplies and food to the Germans was to be stopped and the Germans’ subsequent retreat made impossible. German intelligence was sabotaged. Escape of prisoners had to be meticulously organized. All involved were risking their lives. There is suspense in the telling and gruesome details are related. Each mission is detailed with exactitude. The missions give the reader a very clear picture of Virginia’s personality. Determined, intelligent, independent, self-controlled, courageous, illusive, frank, outspoken, caring, but not cuddly. Posthumously it has been acknowledged that Virginia was discriminated against. That de Gaulle sought to downplay the importance of Allied Forces and of women in general has played in too. That Virginia’s achievements and valor have now been brought to public attention is just and proper. I usually avoid books of espionage. I worry that I will not understand. For the most part, I did understand. There are numerous people involved but the reader is brought back time and time again to central figures. In this way events are tied together as a whole. While the book’s prime focus is Virginia’s actions during the war, her life after the war is summarized too. The book follows her life through to her death. Juliet Stevenson narrates the audiobook. She uses different accents, juggling a fake French accent, a British and an American accent. This made listening a disjointed experience and not to my taste. I have generously given the narration performance three stars. Higher than that I cannot go. ***************************** First Lady 4 stars A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II 4 stars

  5. 5 out of 5

    Katie.dorny

    This is the biography of one of the first women to become a front line secret agent, who left America during the Great Depression, suffered her leg being partially amputated and ended up helping to found what became known as the French resistance. What a bloody woman.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Laura Noggle

    Excellent story, disappointing delivery. How do you take a spy story of a strong female heroine with a prosthetic leg and wild adventures and make it mundane? You suck all the fun out and make it a dry, repetitive slog — aka, this book. It wasn't *that* horrible, it is truly an amazing part of history; it was just the way Purnell wrote it that sapped it. Should have either had a better editor or been 100-150 pages shorter.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Marialyce

    Courage, Bravery, Resilience, thy name is Virginia Hall. I am willing to bet you never heard of this woman as I know with all my time spent in school, that I never did. Yet this woman was responsible for establishing an enormous amount of spy networks through out France, making her a person the Nazis were dying to find, capture, and eliminate. She came from wealth, lost her leg in a hunting accident, and yet nothing held Virginia back. Even after escaping, because the Nazis were hot on her trail Courage, Bravery, Resilience, thy name is Virginia Hall. I am willing to bet you never heard of this woman as I know with all my time spent in school, that I never did. Yet this woman was responsible for establishing an enormous amount of spy networks through out France, making her a person the Nazis were dying to find, capture, and eliminate. She came from wealth, lost her leg in a hunting accident, and yet nothing held Virginia back. Even after escaping, because the Nazis were hot on her trail, across a mountain pass, where so many others had perished, she went back into France, into danger, into a perilous environment where her life constantly was in danger. Yes, she was a woman, and because of that was oftentimes looked down upon by men, denied awards because they weren't given to women, and after the war ended, she arrived at the newly established CIA and was relegated to a job sitting at a desk. Virginia never let anything stand in her way. She was resourceful, brilliant, and a true patriot dedicated to put an end to the evil that pervaded the world, especially that present in France. Her contributions were monumental, truly a major asset to ending the war. Sonia Purnell did an amazing job of portraying this woman, her research was stellar, and she was able to give to readers a portrait of a woman who history really had little knowledge of. Recommended to those who love learning the little known but highly important facts that led us to the end of the horrendous Nazi regime. Thank you to Sonia Purcell, Viking, and Edelweiss for a copy of this amazing story.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jocelyn

    How are we not all aware of this incredible woman?! This needs to be required reading for everyone.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Kerrin Parris

    I had never heard of Virginia Hall before the release of Sonia Purnell’s biography A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. Virginia Hall would be okay with her anonymity since she never sought fame or recompense. In spite of her heroics and brilliant tactics as a spy for the British SOE, and later for the American OSS, Virginia Hall “was pigeonholed as a disabled woman of no importance.” She was often under-utilized and always under-estimated s I had never heard of Virginia Hall before the release of Sonia Purnell’s biography A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II. Virginia Hall would be okay with her anonymity since she never sought fame or recompense. In spite of her heroics and brilliant tactics as a spy for the British SOE, and later for the American OSS, Virginia Hall “was pigeonholed as a disabled woman of no importance.” She was often under-utilized and always under-estimated simply because she was a woman in a man’s war. Yet, she had a fierce drive to exceed in helping the Allies build up the French Resistance and overcome Nazism. In this compelling biography, Sonia Purnell shows the reader why Virginia Hall’s life exemplifies: “How adversity and rejection and suffering can sometimes turn, in the end, into resolve and ultimately triumph, even against the backdrop of a horrifying conflict that casts its long shadow over the way we live today.” Virginia Hall was a real-life, kick-ass, wonder woman! In spite of being an amputee, Virginia Hall was responsible for prodigious activities that had a great impact on the Allies’ success in France. She organized, trained, and armed resistance groups in spite of their internal feuding and machoism; she set up safe-houses; planned ambushes, blowing up bridges, and a prison break of twelve British agents from Mauzac prison camp. Even though she was disabled, she was able to walk across a mountain pass to escape the Nazis. Her organizational abilities were beyond compare. Klaus Barbie was intent on finding and destroying her, calling her “the enemy’s most dangerous spy.” She is remembered by the males who worked under her for teaching “tolerance, friendship without calculation and a true notion of service to one’s country.” After the war, Virginia went to work for the newly formed CIA. However, she was the subject of workplace unfairness because she was a woman with strong opinions. She was often unhappy with her assignments that would relegate her to a boring desk job. Her better ideas were given to male counterparts to carry-out. There are six facets to today’s CIA ethos with Service being the first. Virginia was chosen to represent Service, but the CIA failed to identify her as a “trailblazer” officer who shaped the agency’s history. Her shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as “a textbook case of discrimination.” The author has done an excellent job of detailing Virginia’s numerous activities. There was a cast of many characters that made it hard to keep up with at times. Even Virginia’s artificial leg had its own name. Fortunately, there is a list at the beginning of the book that gives the main player’s names and code names. 4.5-Stars. Bookclub recommended. This is the December 2019 – January 2020 non-fiction group selection for the Goodreads Reading For Pleasure Book Club of which I am a member. For my review that also has a recipe for Chicken Divan to go with it, check out my ad-free blog www.kerrinsbookreviews.com.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie Crowe

    Purnell has penned another spectacular history of another outstanding woman. I was enamored with the first history of Clementine Churchill. I loved that one!! And this tale of the exploits of Virginia Hall just blew me out of the water!!! This woman was unstoppable, unflappable and fearless in her desire to serve in WWII. She was the primary developer of the French Resistance and worked for the British Secret Service as well the American OSS. She struggled for 6 years in France working to defeat Purnell has penned another spectacular history of another outstanding woman. I was enamored with the first history of Clementine Churchill. I loved that one!! And this tale of the exploits of Virginia Hall just blew me out of the water!!! This woman was unstoppable, unflappable and fearless in her desire to serve in WWII. She was the primary developer of the French Resistance and worked for the British Secret Service as well the American OSS. She struggled for 6 years in France working to defeat the Germans and to say she was marvelous is an understatement. She displayed such leadership that French citizens were easily enlisted to help her and willing to suffer to save their country. Purnell has done exquisite research to bring to life the work of Virginia in great detail! I can’t say enough about this book! It will be my history pick for the year! Loved it

  11. 4 out of 5

    Jess

    Virginia Hall was an absolutely incredible figure, establishing and coordinating a resistance network across France almost single handedly, with little backup or communication – and she did all this working around a disability. Sadly, I don’t feel that this biography does her justice. Virginia was a brilliant secret agent – and she has inevitably made it difficult for the modern biographer to piece together her personal story in full. However, even by the end of the book, I had very, very little Virginia Hall was an absolutely incredible figure, establishing and coordinating a resistance network across France almost single handedly, with little backup or communication – and she did all this working around a disability. Sadly, I don’t feel that this biography does her justice. Virginia was a brilliant secret agent – and she has inevitably made it difficult for the modern biographer to piece together her personal story in full. However, even by the end of the book, I had very, very little sense of her character. Purnell takes some remarkably imaginative leaps in moments that are latent in authorial panic. The majority of Virginia’s achievements are hazily attributed to her easy manner and ‘sixth sense’, or simply her ‘ability to make people trust her’. There are of course limitations in any work that must adhere closely to history, but in Purnell’s admirable effort to bring Hall’s story to light (especially amid the androcentricity of war and espionage) she fails to bring a human dimension to her subject. Virginia herself – perhaps fittingly, but also frustratingly – remains an enigma. This is somewhat counterintuitive to me. Purnell’s writing style compromised much of the gravity and power of Virginia’s story. Much of her prose relies on hackneyed modes of expression that are greatly at odds with the events she describes. Lines like ‘left to rot in prison’ or ‘nights of nail-biting tension’ perpetuate the popularised trashy-thriller narrative that Purnell evidently aims to subvert. Overall, it’s just not engaging. The context of the Occupation, the agenda of SOE and the mechanics of radio operation are delivered in rather dry passages that do not strike a balance between assuming knowledge and giving readers credit. Purnell’s exposition will be beneficial to those who are new to this period in history, but to those who have pursued it before, it is unlikely to provide further interest. Disappointing. There were genuinely moments I considered putting the book down, but I thought I owed it to Virginia keep slogging on to hear her story in full. I have read better profiles, even, compared to this biography. I recommend Kathryn J. Atwood’s entry in Women Heroes of World War II: 26 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Resistance, and Rescue.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Deacon Tom F

    Outstanding book about a very strong woman. This is the fantastic story of a great woman, Virginia Hall, who risked her life to organize, energize and run the French Resistance behind enemy lines in WWII. I would like to see it as a movie one day or even a documentary. Sonia Purnell wove minute and well referenced details into the book, so those who were true historians would be satisfied as well. Also, she has a way of making the book flow nicely in the midst of detail. Hall fell in love with F Outstanding book about a very strong woman. This is the fantastic story of a great woman, Virginia Hall, who risked her life to organize, energize and run the French Resistance behind enemy lines in WWII. I would like to see it as a movie one day or even a documentary. Sonia Purnell wove minute and well referenced details into the book, so those who were true historians would be satisfied as well. Also, she has a way of making the book flow nicely in the midst of detail. Hall fell in love with France before WW2 and that love energized her when she was tracked by the German Gestapo. Our author drew my attention to the heroic female intelligence operatives during the WWII. It was truly frustrating to read how badly these female heroes were treated by the men in charge of intelligence operations. Readers will never forget Virginia Hall the leading influence on modern spying practices. Additionally, the author reveals the way women are erased from history - even today. The book is of unmatched heroism and also highlighting the many struggles of a strong women in a man's military world. I highly recommend.

  13. 4 out of 5

    thefourthvine

    Virginia Hall was an amazing person and is a fascinating subject for a biography. She was an incredible agent who worked for the SOE and the OSS during WWII, a key figure in espionage and resistance in occupied France. She deserved better than this book. A big part of my problem with this book was the writing style; the prose is dull and plodding, and I suspect it would be confusing in places for readers not already familiar with the SOE and its wartime operations. Purnell fails to define key te Virginia Hall was an amazing person and is a fascinating subject for a biography. She was an incredible agent who worked for the SOE and the OSS during WWII, a key figure in espionage and resistance in occupied France. She deserved better than this book. A big part of my problem with this book was the writing style; the prose is dull and plodding, and I suspect it would be confusing in places for readers not already familiar with the SOE and its wartime operations. Purnell fails to define key terms or explain the background of major elements in the book. Purnell also handles names astonishingly badly; she refers to most men mentioned by their last names. She calls women either by their first names (Virginia Hall, Germaine Guerin), their full names (Vera Atkins, though honestly I’d be wary of calling her anything else, too), or their titles (many of the Frenchwomen Hall encountered or worked with during the war are called Madame [Lastname]). And she calls most, but not all, SOE agents by their code names, a truly inexplicable choice. (Ben Cowburn remains Ben Cowburn, maybe because of the way he operated, but Brian Stonehouse is referred to as Celestin, Peter Harratt is called Aramis, etc.) I’m not sure how Purnell expects anyone to remember who is who, especially with the vague descriptions and references she provides for most of the people mentioned. I came into this already knowing the names and aliases of most of the major SOE operatives, and I still had to look things up from time to time. I’m also concerned about accuracy. I am by no means an expert in the SOE, WWII, espionage, or anything else, and I caught several minor factual errors — wrong names, mostly. I have to assume there are other errors that I didn’t catch. But mostly I’m just sad that this book didn’t make Virginia Hall live, or give any real sense of what her life was like. The most riveting and well-written chapter is the Mauzac prison break, which Hall orchestrated but wasn’t involved in. In other chapters, there’s almost no information on day to day activities, or rich description of Hall’s actions. I realize that’s in part because of the limited information available about Hall; she didn’t write a book about her experiences, or even talk about them, and was notably unwilling to have them commemorated or celebrated. But it’s still sad. Virginia Hall’s story would make an amazing book, but this book is not the one. (I do hope it inspires someone to make a movie about her, though.)

  14. 4 out of 5

    Jerrie (redwritinghood)

    I love these books about important people in history who you’ve never heard of. This was my introduction to Virginia Hall, an American intelligence official who helped fight Nazis on the ground in France during the WWII occupation. Despite gender discrimination and the loss of a leg during an earlier hunting accident, she was able to organize vast networks of spies and resistance fighters, all while constantly eluding capture by Nazi forces. She was brave, strategic, intelligent, determined, and I love these books about important people in history who you’ve never heard of. This was my introduction to Virginia Hall, an American intelligence official who helped fight Nazis on the ground in France during the WWII occupation. Despite gender discrimination and the loss of a leg during an earlier hunting accident, she was able to organize vast networks of spies and resistance fighters, all while constantly eluding capture by Nazi forces. She was brave, strategic, intelligent, determined, and often very lucky. Her treatment by her male colleagues and lack of general recognition by France, Britain, and the US immediately after the war was infuriating to read about. Her treatment by the CIA later was grossly unfair. Fortunately, her contributions are more recognized today and there is a building named after her that’s used for CIA training. 3.5⭐️

  15. 4 out of 5

    Julie Christine

    This outstanding biography of the most amazing Virginia Hall is more riveting than any well-crafted fictional thriller. Hidden in part because of her clandestine work, but mostly because history is written by men for their own glorification, Virginia's story was largely buried in the annals of military legend and lore. Her extraordinary life and what she accomplished in France during World War II is pieced together in meticulous detail by Sonia Purnell, who balances cold fact with brilliant stor This outstanding biography of the most amazing Virginia Hall is more riveting than any well-crafted fictional thriller. Hidden in part because of her clandestine work, but mostly because history is written by men for their own glorification, Virginia's story was largely buried in the annals of military legend and lore. Her extraordinary life and what she accomplished in France during World War II is pieced together in meticulous detail by Sonia Purnell, who balances cold fact with brilliant storytelling, bringing Virginia to three-dimensional, vibrant life. Hall, always the adventuress, left her native Baltimore for Europe in the mid-1930s. Barely twenty, she fell hard for the liberal lifestyle that awaited her in Paris and after finishing her education, she signed on to work for the State Department. Restricted to secretarial roles in Italy and Turkey, where she lost a leg in a hunting accident, she volunteered to drive an ambulance in France in 1940 just as the Germans began invading en masse. And then Hall, a woman, an American, a striking, tall, redhead with a loping gait to compensate for her prosthetic leg, became one of the first operatives of the newly-formed British spy agency, Special Operations Executive (SOE). Virginia Hall, hastily trained, barely supported, was sent into occupied France to stir up support for an underground movement against the Germans and their French sycophants, the Vichy government. The groundwork laid by Virginia in Lyon became the heart of the French Resistance. The moral and physical hardships endured by Virginia — from being undermined by her male colleagues in the field and at HQ in London, to starvation, constant fear of being discovered, crossing the Pyrenées on foot in winter with a damaged prosthetic leg, the near-misses, the dreaded double agents, knowing of the torture and murder of friends, colleagues, and the many who risked, and lost, their lives building the Resistance around her — most agents lasted months before they cracked or were outed and killed. Virginia endured for six long, lonely years. Despite the massive amount of research detailing operations and its vast list of supporting characters, A Woman of No Importance is nimble and vibrant, just like the woman whose story it illuminates. I'm delighted to learn this story is being made into a feature film. Virginia Hall is larger than life and her story deserves to be proclaimed from the rooftops. A highly recommended read!

  16. 5 out of 5

    Holly

    I loved this story! To read/listen to the book is to have an immersive experience in the emergence of the French Resistance and the life of the eccentric American woman who worked for the UK and was at the center of the Resistance in Europe. The spycraft stories are gripping and the human lives lost are heartbreaking. Also heartbreaking and simply maddening is the disdain and apathy and sexist treatment given to Virginia Hall in the OSS and postwar CIA. The audiobook is read by the award-winning I loved this story! To read/listen to the book is to have an immersive experience in the emergence of the French Resistance and the life of the eccentric American woman who worked for the UK and was at the center of the Resistance in Europe. The spycraft stories are gripping and the human lives lost are heartbreaking. Also heartbreaking and simply maddening is the disdain and apathy and sexist treatment given to Virginia Hall in the OSS and postwar CIA. The audiobook is read by the award-winning British actress Juliet Stevenson, one of the BEST narrators today, in my opinion.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Olive Fellows (abookolive)

    I discuss this book in my video covering round 2 of the 2020 Booktube Prize here: https://youtu.be/Jzdhyuxbz18 I discuss this book in my video covering round 2 of the 2020 Booktube Prize here: https://youtu.be/Jzdhyuxbz18

  18. 5 out of 5

    Madeline

    This book tells the important story of an unrecognized hero of World War II--Virginia Hall, one of the few female spies who helped build the French Resistance and assure the success of the Allied invasion of France. Purnell's stunningly detailed research and writing puts us in the action with Virginia, building up tension, emotion and joy as events unfold. Purnell also includes the perfect amount of historical context, to ensure that the reader isn't left drowning. While the many code names and This book tells the important story of an unrecognized hero of World War II--Virginia Hall, one of the few female spies who helped build the French Resistance and assure the success of the Allied invasion of France. Purnell's stunningly detailed research and writing puts us in the action with Virginia, building up tension, emotion and joy as events unfold. Purnell also includes the perfect amount of historical context, to ensure that the reader isn't left drowning. While the many code names and people referenced may be confusing, the story remains focused on Virginia, and all that she has done for France, freedom and representation, of both women and those with disabilities. Virginia's story inspired and awed me in every page, and I can only look up to her as a role model. I am so glad Purnell took the time to research Virginia and give her the attention and respect that she deserved. Virginia's story is one of perseverance, determination, and love of freedom, country, and people that should not be forgotten. We still have much to learn and improve upon from her experience. Women—our capabilities, emotions, and drive—should not be overlooked or ignored, and Virginia Hall's story is a shining example of the consequences, both positive and negative, of this. Thank you to Edelweiss and Penguin for providing me with an advanced readers copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. -- I'll write a more detailed account later, but this book is an amazingly detailed account of the story of Virginia Hall, a formidable and trailblazing spy during World War II. Great representation of disability as well!

  19. 5 out of 5

    Lynn

    This is a fascinating book about a little known WWII war hero, Virginia Hall. An American woman with a prosthetic leg, she managed to become British undercover operative in France during the Nazi occupation. She was able to recruit hundred of patriotic French men and women into the resistance, sabotaging and undermining the German war efforts in France. She became the most wanted and hated spy in France, and the Nazis hunted her unmercifully. Somehow she always managed to stay one limping step a This is a fascinating book about a little known WWII war hero, Virginia Hall. An American woman with a prosthetic leg, she managed to become British undercover operative in France during the Nazi occupation. She was able to recruit hundred of patriotic French men and women into the resistance, sabotaging and undermining the German war efforts in France. She became the most wanted and hated spy in France, and the Nazis hunted her unmercifully. Somehow she always managed to stay one limping step ahead of them. After the war, despite her brave and heralded efforts during the war, she was given unsatisfying and demeaning assignments by the CIA, which was an incredibly misogynistic organization. Virginia Hall was an exceptional woman, totally ahead of her time. She was very conscientious and exacting about everything she undertook. She understood the need for discretion and secrecy in her work, more than many of her male “superiors.” She planned every maneuver to the last detail, and was even able to help some of her captured colleagues break out of prison. People grew to trust her and pledge fealty to her. She was modest to a fault, not wanting any honors after the war. This book is carefully and impeccably researched and well written. Although Virginia’s exploits seem fantastical, they are all carefully documented. I contrast this with the book Beneath a Scarlet Sky, which was primarily based in the recollections of an elderly man, who seemed to exaggerate and embellish his deeds during WWII, some of which seemed far fetched. I would recommend A Woman of No Importance over Beneath A Scarlet Sky any day.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Lynn Horton

    A Woman of No Importance is one of the best, most interesting books I've read in a very long time. I highly recommend it. It would be hard to research a manuscript about a war heroine when records from that war are still largely classified, and even harder to write a manuscript about a person who preferred to keep her accomplishments private. That research is further complicated when the subject conducted her daring escapades during a time when women weren't welcome in the boys' club of OSS, the A Woman of No Importance is one of the best, most interesting books I've read in a very long time. I highly recommend it. It would be hard to research a manuscript about a war heroine when records from that war are still largely classified, and even harder to write a manuscript about a person who preferred to keep her accomplishments private. That research is further complicated when the subject conducted her daring escapades during a time when women weren't welcome in the boys' club of OSS, the CIA, and other intelligence agencies. So "hat's off" to author Purnell for her dogged perserverence and determination to tell this story. The real star of this show is Virginia Hall, a woman whose contributions to WWII covert operations should be taught in school. Honestly, I read international thriller and mystery, and Hall's story is as engaging as anything written by Silva, Thor, La Carre, Child, Ludlum or Clancy. Furthermore, Hall's story put a lot of what I already knew about WWII into perspective, placing people and names into a context I've never had before and enabling me to better understand them.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Olivia

    Virginia Hall is a grade A bad ass and deserves better. This book read like a bad book report.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    I had never heard of Virginia Hall before, but wow...she was an incredible woman and such a force for freedom while behind the lines in France during WW2. I highly recommend this detailed history of all the incredible things she endured and accomplished and how many great things she did to defeat the Nazis in their own territories, and without backup. Content: while the story is very matter of fact, there’s no denying that the Nazis are guilty of incredible atrocities, and even just a sentence ab I had never heard of Virginia Hall before, but wow...she was an incredible woman and such a force for freedom while behind the lines in France during WW2. I highly recommend this detailed history of all the incredible things she endured and accomplished and how many great things she did to defeat the Nazis in their own territories, and without backup. Content: while the story is very matter of fact, there’s no denying that the Nazis are guilty of incredible atrocities, and even just a sentence about something they did can have an incredible impact. Thanks to the publisher for a free reading copy. A favorable review was not required.

  23. 5 out of 5

    JaNel

    Slightly embarrassed, but didn’t finish. I really wanted to know this story but the writing is so dry and moves so slow. Don’t judge me; I put forth a good effort. And I love to read and love books! (But make a movie in this case...?)

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jean

    I have never been a big history buff. Perhaps it is something that happens as one collects decades in one’s life, but if I had read more books like Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance , I would have known that history is a fascinating subject. This non-fiction saga covers the incredibly successful, albeit unlikely, career of Virginia Hall, a woman who defied the odds by becoming a very reliable British Special Operation Executive agent in France in World War II. Virginia, called “Dindy” b I have never been a big history buff. Perhaps it is something that happens as one collects decades in one’s life, but if I had read more books like Sonia Purnell’s A Woman of No Importance , I would have known that history is a fascinating subject. This non-fiction saga covers the incredibly successful, albeit unlikely, career of Virginia Hall, a woman who defied the odds by becoming a very reliable British Special Operation Executive agent in France in World War II. Virginia, called “Dindy” by her family, was born in Maryland in 1906 into a well-to-do family. Although she was highly intelligent, she found school boring. She craved adventure and travel. When she finished school, her dream was to become a diplomat. She applied but was rejected. Even President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself would not intervene on her behalf. This was ironic because like Roosevelt, Dindy had a disability. She was an amputee, having lost her leg after it became severely infected following a hunting accident. She didn’t let that deter her, however, from pursuing her higher aspirations. At the time, there were only six women of 1500 foreign service workers. Rejection because of her gender became a common occurrence in Virginia’s career. Instead of pouting, she dug in her heels and made herself an even stronger candidate. Since the American government had rejected her, she signed on with the British. She was trained as a spy and became an expert at disguising herself, recruiting supporters and resistance fighters, and providing food, concealment, and safe transport to those fleeing the Nazis and the Abwehr. She formed incredible networks of defenders among the police, townsfolk, other agents, and even a madam and prostitutes in brothels. What she didn’t have, often, was cooperation or well-disciplined agents among her ranks. Some men, unfortunately, were resistant to taking orders from a woman, and she had no real authority to command them, for this was not her title. It was, however, her expertise and her calling. Ms. Purnell documents in great detail many of the missions and exploits undertaken by Virginia and the men with whom she worked. There were many successes as well as many failures. This does not read like any of the history books I grew up with in school. It almost reads like a novel. There are plots that were complex undertakings, and I found myself totally engrossed. Most were fraught with hunger, cold, sleep-deprivation, and ever-present danger. Virginia (and Cuthbert, her wooden prosthesis) endured it all and pulled herself together to keep on going. Amazing! Many of those who were her partners in the Resistance, sadly, did not survive. The descriptions of their fate are not pleasant to read. I marvel at the courage and determination of these men and women who gave so much for France. There are too many events to mention, but I do have one that impressed me the most: the jailbreak of the twelve SOE agents from Mauzac prison, a feat that was planned by Virginia and was thought to be impossible. Over time, she became a most-wanted person by the Germans, who first thought they were looking for a man. I am in awe of the research that went into the writing of this book. I took my time in reading it. I looked up French words and their pronunciations. I went back and forth and looked up code names in the List of Characters, as I got confused at times. What struck me most was how this one woman accomplished so much and wanted no credit. She only wanted to do more. She was “a woman of no importance...in concealing her identity from others, she had at last found what she really was and what she really could do. And how, in fighting for the liberty of another nation, she had found freedom for herself.”(page 308) Today, Virginia Hall is recognized as a pioneer who represents Service, one of the CIA’s six ethos. France and the Allies owe a great debt to Virginia Hall and those who struggled and fought with her. 5 stars

  25. 5 out of 5

    Donna

    3.5 STARS. This is nonfiction about an American woman who made the French resistance her passion. She fought her way to the center and did so much to assist and direct. She was daring and constantly pushed for results. I enjoyed her story. But I'm not sure I was all that crazy about the audio narration. So 3 stars.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Katherine Reay

    Reads like great fiction and is all the more incredible because it's true. I had no idea of all that Virginia Hall did -- of all that the Resistance did, really. My WWII knowledge is woefully inadequate, but getting better everyday.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Mal Warwick

    Popular fiction abounds with superheroes. But it's not often at all that you'll come across a true-to-life story of a person who comes even close to the sort of over-the-top heroism that so many popular writers favor. However, the story of WWII American woman spy Virginia Hall (1906-82) fits that bill. In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell relates the woman's experience in World War II in compelling and often jaw-dropping detail. It's the best study I've ever read about the British Special Popular fiction abounds with superheroes. But it's not often at all that you'll come across a true-to-life story of a person who comes even close to the sort of over-the-top heroism that so many popular writers favor. However, the story of WWII American woman spy Virginia Hall (1906-82) fits that bill. In A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell relates the woman's experience in World War II in compelling and often jaw-dropping detail. It's the best study I've ever read about the British Special Operations Executive (SOE), the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and the French Resistance. I found it nearly impossible to put the book down. "An unqualified heroine of the war" "Today Virginia is officially recognized by the CIA as an unqualified heroine of the war," Purnell notes in an Epilogue. And in 2016 the CIA named its training center the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center. But during the six years she worked for the SOE and the OSS during the war, and during her fifteen-year postwar career in the CIA, she was confronted again and again by misogyny. Incompetent and jealous men were placed in command of her work. Male agents and partisans often refused to accept orders from her even when confirmed by her superiors in London. She was denied promotions, even nickel-and-dimed about pay. And she was refused decorations for her heroism that had been supported by nearly all those who worked with her. This WWII American woman spy almost single-handedly kept the Resistance alive During the nearly four years when she operated massive special operations forces behind Nazi lines in France, Virginia Hall was never awarded an equivalent rank higher than that of lieutenant. Yet the extraordinary skill and bravery with which she recruited, trained, and supplied thousands of guerrilla fighters in the French Resistance surely merited a rank of at least major general. For a time early in the war, she almost single-handedly kept the Resistance alive when the Gestapo was rounding up other networks of spies and partisans. In Western armies, a major general typically commands a division of 10-20,000 soldiers; the forces she amassed were ultimately even larger. It was only in the CIA long after the war that she was promoted to any meaningful extent, finally receiving the equivalent rank of lieutenant colonel shortly before her retirement. "A Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage" Purnell describes her book as "a Homeric tale of adventure, action, and seemingly unfathomable courage." And that is not hyperbole. Virginia Hall, child of a prosperous Baltimore banking family, showed leadership early in life. In high school, she became "class president, editor in chief, captain of sports, and even 'Class Prophet.'" She often dressed and acted like a tomboy but lost a leg in a hunting accident at age 26. That tragedy might have sidelined her, but it did nothing of the sort. She lived for the rest of her life with a wooden prosthetic leg, somehow managing feats of endurance that confounded fully-abled young men. Misogyny and a disability held her back As a young woman, Hall was determined to join the Foreign Service. She spoke five languages as well as English. (Her French was "atrocious," as one person said, but she made herself fully understood nonetheless.) But misogyny and her disability prevented her receiving the appointments she sought in the 1930s—even with the personal support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at one point. She was never able to secure a Foreign Service job except as a secretary. "Virginia's shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as a textbook case of discrimination." "No one gave her more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving" When at last early in the war Hall was recruited to the fledgling SOE and sent behind the lines in France, "no one in London gave [her] more than a fifty-fifty chance of surviving even the first few days. For all Virginia's qualities, dispatching a one-legged thirty-five-year-old desk clerk on a blind mission into wartime France was on paper an almost insane gamble. Yet Hall operated successfully behind German lines in France for more than three years for the SOE (and many months more for the OSS) without ever being caught by the Abwehr and the Gestapo. She was the Nazis's #1 most wanted Allied agent Hall even became the number one target of the notorious SS war criminal Klaus Barbie for more than a year. "The Limping Lady of Lyon was becoming the Nazis' most wanted Allied agent in the whole of France," Purnell reports. "[B]y the end of 1943, . . . Virginia's name, description, and role were universally known across German intelligence and beyond." Yet she continued to direct operations for a huge and growing army of spies and saboteurs for months, and to travel, often by foot, all across the land to refuge in neutral Spain without detection. She engineered a spectacular prison break Perhaps the most spectacular episode in A Woman of No Importanceis the astonishing prison break Hall engineered under the noses of the Nazis in 1942. Working with a courageous Frenchwoman whose husband was one of twelve prisoners held in a Vichy French prison, she arranged to smuggle in tools, food, and other supplies and manage the safe houses and exit strategy to get the man safely to London. There is no film, even The Great Escape (1963), that recounts a story any more dramatic than Hall's exfiltration of a dozen Allied agents from the Nazis's collaborators. Several books have been written about this amazing WWII American woman spy, but this must be the best.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Banbury

    Virginia Hall must have been an amazing woman, but there was not much of a record on which to base a narrative, and certainly not this overlong one. Most of the other people in the story are given names, noms de guerre, and some details about their station in life. But they are not memorable, and often not distinguishable from one another. A dull book.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Robin Hatcher

    What an absolutely fascinating history! What a remarkable woman! I researched the Resistance before writing one of my novels, but that was long ago and I don't recall coming across information about Virginia Hall. Now I understand why. Students of WWII history and fans of WWII fiction should take the time to read this book. It is well worth it. I listened to the audiobook, and the narrator, Juliet Stevenson, was wonderful.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    This is an engaging book about a totally badass historical figure, though I’m left unconvinced that the author really had enough information to write a book about her. Virginia Hall was an American woman who, during WWII, worked undercover in France for first the British and later the American intelligence agencies. She helped organize and arm the French Resistance, spied for the Allies, and later even directed guerilla activities herself. She faced incredible dangers to do so, and with about two This is an engaging book about a totally badass historical figure, though I’m left unconvinced that the author really had enough information to write a book about her. Virginia Hall was an American woman who, during WWII, worked undercover in France for first the British and later the American intelligence agencies. She helped organize and arm the French Resistance, spied for the Allies, and later even directed guerilla activities herself. She faced incredible dangers to do so, and with about two years behind enemy lines, spent much more time in France than most operatives, despite the comrades regularly being hauled off by the Gestapo to be tortured and sent to death camps. She had plenty of adventures and near-misses, including once having to escape over the Pyrenees on foot in winter, an even more impressive feat given that she walked on a wooden leg after shooting herself in the foot years before. Hall is certainly an impressive figure, and I am glad to have learned about her and enjoyed the book. After the first couple of chapters early on, relating the first 30-odd years of her life before sneaking into occupied France, the book is overwhelmingly focused on high-tension WWII exploits, and written in a fluid style that makes for quick reading. I’ve read my share of WWII books considering this is not my favorite subject, but I learned some new things here about the French Resistance, and the book introduces readers to numerous impressive men and women who risked and sometimes lost their lives fighting the Nazis. That said, Hall herself – no surprise here – was secretive, and refused to share war stories even in later years with the niece to whom she was close, so I have some questions about where all the author’s information comes from. In particular, the author is quick to describe Hall’s thoughts and feelings about events without attributing them to any particular source, leaving me to suspect she made them up. Also, that same reticence on the part of the book’s subject left me confused about just how Hall was accomplishing the things she did. Somehow, Hall would arrive in a place where she knew no one, and despite Purnell’s repeated insistence that Hall was security-oriented and had no patience for loose-lipped operatives, within as little as two days she would have some new person apparently in on the secret, risking their life to accompany her on dangerous missions, while she risked hers in trusting them. Obviously Hall was an excellent judge of character since this virtually always worked out, but the book doesn’t give any sense of her methods, probably because the author doesn’t know. I also came away with the sense that Purnell was perhaps a little too enamored of her subject, heavily criticizing anyone Hall didn’t get along with. It’s interesting that Hall’s career never really went anywhere except in occupied France: before the war she largely seems to have been held back in her attempted diplomatic career by gender prejudice, and it was at least partially the same story afterwards in her years with the CIA. However, I couldn’t entirely share the author’s indignation with the CIA’s failure to fully utilize Hall’s talents when during the decades after WWII the agency was busy toppling democratically-elected progressive leaders in Latin America to replace them with right-wingers who were friendly to American business interests and whose torture and murder of dissenters was pretty similar to the Nazis’ methods. While Hall’s having a desk job during those years doesn’t exempt her from her share of moral culpability – which Purnell never acknowledges – it at least lets the book focus instead on the straightforward excitement of the French Resistance years, with everything after that summed up in a single chapter at the end. As an interesting and enjoyable book that introduced me to an impressive woman I would not otherwise have known about, I found this worth reading. But it’s sufficiently biased and speculative that I find it a bit difficult to recommend.

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