Book Review: “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II” by Sonia Purnell

I’ve now completed two non-fiction books in a row (I’ve completely given up on Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil because it’s just drudgery), and I feel like I still enjoyed Endurance better, because the reading wasn’t as dense.

That’s not to say that this story of Virginia Hall is to be skipped: on the contrary, Hall’s story is so full of amazing things that one might think it was a work of fiction, if Purnell had not included every single one of her sources as well as an additional bibliography for further reading. Purnell admits that it’s hard to know specific details sometimes because the original documents were lost in a fire at some point, and Virginia herself never wrote down her story in her own words.

A Woman of No Importance traces the life of Virginia Hall from her idyllic childhood as one of “the” Halls (a family that, once flush with cash, was falling on harder times, and so it was Virginia’s duty to marry rich and marry well), to her decision to acquire a college education, to her becoming one of the most amazing spies during World War II and who was instrumental in bringing about victory over the Germans in France. There are some who claim that she is single-handedly responsible for the Allied victories in France, though she herself refused to accept awards that were given to her for her military achievements.

It is clear that Purnell has done her research, but parts of this book were so packed with facts and information that it felt more like a kid word-vomiting everything they knew for an essay on a test instead of a readable book, and even though this book was technically shorter than Endurance I had to break it up into several reading sessions or I would get lost in the twisting pages. I feel like this book might have been better served had there been a listing of every character in the beginning of the book along with their codenames, so you can flip back and forth in case you get lost. There were so many characters coming in and out of the pages that it was hard to keep track of who everyone was.

The hardest part about this book was the final chapter, where it detailed Virginia’s life after the war, and it’s your stereotypical “women are fragile flowers and therefore we need to protect them” bull. She did an incredible job in France, received stacks of glowing reports, never let her wooden leg hinder her – and was still looked down upon and treated as an “other” at her job after the war, because the thinking in the 1950s was that women should be at home with the kids, cleaning the home so the husband can relax after work, and yet here was this accomplished and decorated woman daring to sit in their midst. It had to be a shattering realization for Virginia to know that she would never be as good as the incompetent men around her. (Good news, though: the CIA now uses her to show what discrimination is and how not to discriminate. It’s a little too late, though, as Virginia died in 1982.)

If you are looking for more books about the activities of American spies (or British spies – she started out spying for the SOE!) during World War II and you don’t mind rather dense reading material, I urge you to check out this book. There are so many incredible people that we never learn about in school, and Virginia Hall is one whose name deserves to be taught in those classrooms. I would give this book 4/5 stars, solely for the fact that it is not really accessible except to those who have the time and the headspace to keep track of dozens of different names and codenames (and most of them have multiple codenames, too). The writing is dense and hard to understand at times, but if you’re a World War II fan, you most likely will find this more of an excitement than a hindrance to reading this book.

If you have any other suggestions for World War II reading, let me know in the comments!

And as always, keep reading.

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