Book News: January-February 2023

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

by Sonia Purnell

“I’d give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian bitch,” one of her enemies, Klaus Barber, known as The Butcher of Lyon, reportedly said. Thousands of wanted posters were taped to poles with her picture on it and the caption: ‘The Enemy’s Most Dangerous Spy. We must find and destroy her.”

There are numerous excellent books written about intrepid women spies of World War II, such as Nancy Wake, Odette Sansom, Vera Atkins, and Marie-Madeline Fourcade. This electrifying book about Virginia Hall, who was an American citizen, is especially informative since it’s based on newly-discovered information gleaned by the author, Sonia Purnell.

I’m not fond of the title. The author is understandably outraged about the treatment of women during the WWII era, but that unfortunately was the prevailing attitude regarding women. Readers need to consider the historical context. The primary focus of the book is what Virginia accomplished amidst overwhelming obstacles and the inconceivable, breathtaking challenges she experienced and overcame, especially since she had a prosthetic wooden leg. She was one of the most important and effective assets Britain had during the war. Fortitude, multi-linguistic abilities, perseverance – she possessed it all! Not only was she the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines, Virginia established and controlled extensive French resistance spy networks throughout France, including training men how to sabotage German communications and plant explosives on roads. Her network consisted of approximately 1,500 people.

Part of the espionage organization created by Winston Churchill and known as the “Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare,” she worked for the British Secret Service (British Special Operations Executive Services) from 1939-1942, and for the Office of Strategic Service (OSS, the precursor to the CIA) from 1943 until the end of the war. For the next fifteen years Virginia was employed by the CIA. 

After the war, the U.S., the United Kingdom, and France recognized her remarkable contributions. President Truman planned to honor Virginia at a public White House ceremony, but she declined. She wanted to keep her low profile and avoid the limelight. Virginia was the only civilian woman honored with the Distinguished Service Cross, an award for heroism in World War II, which William Donovan, the legendary OSS chief, personally presented her. For her heroic actions in wartime France, France awarded her the highest honor their government awards a civilian, the Croix de Guerre.

Truly a heart-stopping and enlightening read about Virginia, spy craft, and WWII history. Don’t miss it!

African Indaba: A Story of Adventure and Conflict

by Angus Robb

Robb has crafted a rich, compelling debut novel about friendship, loyalty, and justice. The story occurs from 1933 to 1964, primarily in southern Rhodesia (present day Zimbabwe) during the waning years of Britain’s colonial rule. The protagonist, Rory MacKenzie, is the son of a Scottish refugee and a Boer mother.

Thrilled to accompany his grandfather, Oupa, on his very first safari, six-year-old Rory unfortunately witnesses the vicious attack and murder of his grandfather by Chola, a mystical elephant, known by the local populace as possessing magical powers. Inexplicably, Chola leaves Rory unharmed. Years later, Rory watches as Chola attacks his father, Callum, who had organized a hunt to avenge Oupa’s death. And again, Chola ambles away from Rory, allowing him to live.

The rest of this riveting book chronicles Rory’s life, from the challenges faced while attending a heartless boarding school in Scotland, to becoming an officer in the British military, weaving illuminating South African history along with it.

The masterful narrative shifts seamlessly between Callum, Rory, Chola, and James (Callum’s trusted and dear friend), providing insight into each character.

An intriguing and perceptive read, I gained a deeper understanding of South Africa and the conflicts faced during the period of British colonialism. Together with Northern Rhodesia (Zambia), Nyasaland (Malawi), and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), they formed British Central Africa. Rhodesia became a British colony in 1923 and gained independence in 1965.

Angus Robb was born and raised in various towns in Sub-Saharan Africa. He now lives in New Mexico. The elephant illustrations and book cover artwork were designed by Placitas artist Pat Harrison.

The Story of Russia

by Orlando Figes

“Contemporary Russian politics are too often analyzed without knowledge of the country’s past.”

I’ve admired Figes, writer extraordinaire and eminent Russian scholar, for years. A brilliant British historian and author of the outstanding books, “The Crimean War: A History,” “Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia,” and “Just Send Me Word: A True Story of Love and Survival in the Gulag,” his new book provides insight about this complex country, its “Russian Soul,” and how Russia’s thousand-year, intricate history has shaped it. Figes believes “an understanding of the country’s past is essential to make sense of the developments in Russia during the past thirty years.”  He begins his commentary with Russia’s creation in the 9th century, ending with the present time. Along with its diverse culture, he discusses how documented historical events have been reimagined into different versions of history and mythology, in order to legitimize the current ideology of the day and influence past history.

An informative and excellent analysis of both Vladimir Putin’s governance and Russia, readers will find “The Story of Russia” an enriching read.