A Woman of No Importance, by Sonia Purnell

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Subtitled The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II, this is a fascinating read. If you thought, as I initially did, that the subtitle is a bit hyperbolic, rest assured that it is not. Born in 1906 to a wealthy and prestigious family, Virginia Hall grew up in Baltimore but preferred adventure to marriage. During WWII, she became one of the first British spies—and the first female—in France where she organised Resistance units and provided critical intelligence to the Allies.

Fluent in French, German and Italian, she initially worked for the US Consular Service before moving to the Special Operations Executive (SOE), an early UK intelligence organisation. The US had not yet joined the war and she’d previously been turned down by the US State Department because of her disability. She had lost a leg below the knee after a hunting accident and had a wooden prosthesis, yet that did not hold her back from her active work first in Vichy France, primarily Lyon which she made into the most extensive and effective center for Resistance and intel in France.

After being betrayed and hunted Javert-like by Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, she made a daring and arduous trek over a 7,500 foot pass in the Pyrenees to Spain without even a walking stick to help. Once the U.S. joined the war she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), returning to Occupied France to organise Maquis units to harass the enemy, gather intel, and assist the Allies before, during, and after the D-Day invasion. Her intel was crucial to the D-Day planners.

I can’t begin to list all she accomplished despite her wooden leg and, more importantly, despite being held back every step of the way by male superiors who couldn’t accept that a woman could do useful work other than typing or making tea, hence the title of this book. This discrimination persisted after the war when she eventually found work with the CIA after the OSS was disbanded, yet was belittled and confined to desk jobs by men with no combat or espionage experience.

Yet, her intelligence and adaptability, her drive and charisma, her intense love of France and determination to drive out the Nazi invaders together won her the loyalty of the people she worked with on the ground. Only Virginia thought to use a brothel as a safe house and its workers as intel-gatherers. Only Virginia had the organizational and planning ability to organise jailbreaks from the Nazis’ most forbidding prisons.

It’s a stunning and inspiring story, brilliantly presented here. I learned much that was new to me about conditions in Vichy and Occupied France and the Resistance, things I thought I knew pretty well. The action is as breath-taking as any thriller. I listened to the audio version, narrated by Juliet Stevenson, one of my favorite actors, and often couldn’t bear to stop. I fumed about the discrimination, grieved for the losses, raged at the Nazis’ torture of captured spies, and rejoiced in her victories.

What a woman!

Have you read a biography of a “forgotten” historical figure?

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

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I read this popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel a few months ago but wanted to let it sit for a while before blogging about it. I needed to sort out the emotions it left me with: a combination of enchantment and disappointment.

It’s an ambitious work, one that is out to change the world, at least our human part of it. Powers conjures our life as a whole, the one that we share with the rest of nature, through nine characters, whose individual tales bounce off each other and sometimes intersect. While their goals may be art or love or survival, each character’s journey is also one of developing a relationship with nature, specifically trees.

Writers are told to avoid polemics, to get down off our soapboxes, or we risk annoying or alienating readers. I don’t think anyone could question the wondrous greatness of trees or their life going on independently of us, yet Powers avoids the trap of dogma by giving us their side of the story through those of his characters, their resistance, their devotion, their sacrifice.

I didn’t need convincing. I’ve had a deep emotional attachment to trees since earliest childhood, counting some among my best friends. Nor did the rest of my book club, all of us already in love with trees, living as we do in the Green Mountains. Yet we all struggled with the beginning of the book, unable to remember the characters after each was introduced in the first section, having to flip back to remind ourselves.

We were also disappointed—while profoundly moved—by the ending. I try not to give away endings, so I’ll just echo the assertion of writing master Donald Maass that we want stories that reflect reality; he says, “the truth is that while we may live in a bleak world we are not empty inside.” Here, the enigmatic ending left us debating this idea.

The baffling prologue was enough to make me put the book down several times before reluctantly reading on for the sake of my book club. As it turns out, it doesn’t reflect the book as a whole. You can safely skip it.

Otherwise, the writing is often is enchanting. Eventually the characters became distinct and memorable but always the events and descriptions kept me reading.

Now the linden, it turns out, is a radical tree, as different from an oak as a woman is from a man. It’s the bee tree, the tree of peace, whose tonics and teas can cure every kind of tension and anxiety.

Powers also brings devastating psychological insight to his characters. One, a man who has lived a life considered normal for a middle-class American man, says: “I’ve been a man who happily confuses the agreed-upon for the actual.” A brilliant description that could fit quite a few people I know.

But what I find most stunning is the brave attempt to write a larger story, surely another meaning of the title, which the author uses as a synonym for trees’ canopy. By telling the world’s story through those of nine characters, Powers has chosen the most effective way to accomplish this seemingly impossible task. As writing master Lisa Cron has memorably described stories have been our means of survival since the earliest days. Stories are how we learn and the best way for us to remember.

My book club discussed the concept of forest bathing, the idea of destressing and even healing by walking through the woods, agreeing that we all had been doing this long before the term was coined. We hoped that this novel would increase awareness of and activism to protect the natural world, especially our beloved trees.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it?