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?

In This Grave Hour, by Jacqueline Winspear

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As I’ve mentioned before here and here, I’m a fan of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series. Besides liking psychologist/investigator Maisie herself a lot—she combines integrity with intelligence, a strong work ethic with a warm heart—I especially like the way Winspear includes the historical context. As the author says:

I wanted to focus on the impact of extraordinary times on the lives of ordinary people. And I wanted to use the mystery to give form to the journey through chaos to resolution—or not, as the case may be.

When we first met Maisie, she was rebuilding her life after serving as a nurse in the front lines of WWI. This installment, the 13th, begins with Neville Chamberlain solemnly declaring the start of WWII.

Echoes of WWI and its long tail of consequences pervade this story as Maisie tries to find the assassin of a former Belgian refugee before he or she kills again. As several characters remark, who would take a life at a time when there is so much fear of the killing to come? And why would anyone want to kill this harmless man?

I am reading the books in order; some I’ve read before but I wanted to fit them into the larger framework. It’s been said that a series is like a television show, with each book equating to an episode. The struggle for the writer is to include enough information that a new reader won’t be lost without boring someone who’s read the other books.

It’s a little hard for me to judge, since I’m not coming to it as a newbie, but I think this book would work as a stand-alone. Winspear adds just a sentence or two of background as needed. However, I think the reading experience is considerably deepened by having read the previous books. Most of the characters have appeared before, so prior knowledge helps you better understand their actions and reactions. Plus your emotional commitment to the characters is much greater. For example, some of the children you’ve seen tumbling about like puppies are now old enough to fight in the war.

There are some new characters here as well as old familiars. Among them are Anna, a little girl who has been evacuated from London along with the other “Operation Pied Piper” evacuees, but who has no papers. No one knows who she is and she herself refuses to speak, just as she refuses to let go of her small case and gas mask.

Anna and two other children are billeted at Maisie’s home in Kent. Maisie, who lost her husband and baby only three years previously, finds her heart turning toward the child even as those around her warn that she will only be hurt again when the girl returns to her family.

Maisie also becomes involved in the families of other former Belgian refugees as she pursues the killer, even as their former country faces new devastation.

The threads of the story are tightly woven. What makes a person kill? What makes a family, holds it together, and releases it? How does the past continue to shape the present?

I only have one quibble with this book. Maisie repeatedly uses the expression “It begs the question . . . “ incorrectly. She means “It raises the question . . . “ Where was Winspear’s editor? This common error stood out like a starburst in the midst of the otherwise delightful prose.

The perspective of ordinary people during this liminal time, when war has been declared but the fighting not yet begun, is fascinating. One mother travels with great hardship to Kent to reclaim her sons and take them back to London, even though the schools are closed, even though bombs are expected to fall. But who can imagine bombing before it happens? What parent can bear to put their children on a train to some unknown place with unknown people? I don’t know if I could have done it.

Chaos may not always be resolved, though some small part of it may be. We do what we can.

Have you read any of the Maisie Dobbs books?

Heart Earth, by Ivan Doig

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As children, we find it hard to imagine that our parents had lives before we were born. However, as we grow into the ages at which we knew them, it’s not uncommon for us to wonder what our parents’ lives were like, what they felt, what they dreamed. Perhaps we compare ourselves to them at the age we’ve now gained. Perhaps we use our own experiences and insights to illuminate what once seemed so mysterious.

Ivan Doig was hampered in doing this by his mother’s death from asthma when he was only six years old. His slim memories of her didn’t stretch very far. That changes when he inherits a collection of letters from his mother to her brother Wally while he was stationed in the Pacific during the last months of WWII. Doig was estranged from his uncle, something he regrets now that Wally is gone, so was unaware of the letters.

His mother’s words not only anchor his own memories, but give him a rare insight into her thoughts and feelings. This poignant and lyrical memoir, a prequel to his memoir This House of Sky, traces what he knows of Beneta Ringer Doig’s short life combined with his own recollections as they move from a ranch in Montana to a factory boomtown in Arizona and back again.

His evocation of the harsh reality of life in rural Montana combines love for the rugged beauty of the landscape with respect for the grit and determination of its people. The area is only just beginning to recover from the Great Depression, not yet sharing the wartime economy. They move to Arizona hoping the desert air will help Beneta’s asthma and the work improve their financial outlook.

I love the way Doig combines the larger picture of what is happening in the country with his own family’s experiences. His memories of playing war in the dusty factory town and drawing pictures of airplanes and Uncle Wally’s ship remind me of my own childhood a decade later. As writers we sometimes forget to include the social context of our stories, the political and cultural trends that help form our characters. This memoir is a good model for how to do that well.

I love, too, his description of his parents’ relationship, filtered as it is through his child’s eyes, family stories, and now his mother’s own words. They move back to Montana, hoping a higher altitude will help her asthma, and dreaming grand dreams of finally succeeding at making the land pay off. Their struggle reminded me of Laura Ingalls Wilders’s family fifty years earlier each year looking ahead to finally getting a good wheat harvest to pay off their debts.

Part of why I enjoyed this audio book so much is that it is narrated by Tom Stechschulte, one of my favorite narrators, not only because of his laconic yet engaging voice, but also because his accent reminds me of my friend Frank. I relaxed into the rhythm of his speech, barely noticing the sometimes overwritten passages that might have bothered me if I’d been reading the book.

I think I’d still have enjoyed this portrait of family life in a particular time and place. I would also have loved the portrait of Beneta, a lively, determined and passionate woman whose steadfast spirit seems to capture all that is best in our image of the American West.

What memoir have you read that vividly captures a time period through the lives of ordinary people?

The Postmistress, by Sarah Blake

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We don’t often reflect on just how amazing it is that we can put a letter in the post and know that it will arrive at its destination in a timely way. Iris James is the sole employee of the post office in Franklin, Massachusetts, a small town on the tip of Cape Cod. It is the fall of 1940, and the U.S. is holding off from entering the war. Meanwhile, Iris and her neighbors listen to the news coming out of London where the Blitz is flattening buildings and posters urging Londoners to Keep Calm and Carry On abound.

Many of the newscasts come from Edward R. Murrow but some people in Franklin are being drawn in by the voice of Murrow’s protégé Frankie Bard. She talks about the little moments that bring to life the horrors happening in London for the inhabitants of Franklin.

One of those inhabitants is Emma, new wife of the town’s doctor, Will Fitch. Orphaned during the flu epidemic of 1918, Emma has grown up feeling invisible, untethered as she is by human bonds. Meeting Will has changed all that, but Will has his own demons.

Franklin seems far away from the war and the U.S., like Franklin’s mob of summer tourists, is too busy being entertained to pay much attention to what is happening in Europe. “How easily the face of the world turns away,” Frankie thinks at one point. Yet the war’s reach is long.

Blake’s evocation of wartime London is brilliant; equally vivid is her portrait of quiet Franklin, where Iris takes comfort in the routine and order and consistency she can bring to her work in the tiny post office, holding the secrets of the town in her hands, as one neighbor tells her. I found Iris fascinating, yet for once didn’t mind moving between protagonists as the story shifted between the three women, because Emma and Frankie are equally fascinating.

I didn’t expect to like this book, despite (or perhaps because of) the effusive praise on the cover. One Thanksgiving when I was eight or nine, my cousin Bobby piled a lot of sauerkraut on my plate, and my mother made me eat it all. I’ve never been able to eat sauerkraut since.

That’s how I feel about novels set in WWII. I find it hard to read yet another one. My perception of the outsized number of WWII novels may be a function of my age. As the central event in the lives of my parents’ generation (along with the Depression), it was obviously a subject that stirred many writers and readers during the decades when I was growing up. And then there’s the aftermath of the war that I experienced. After my mother’s sentimental stories of the boys she danced with before they shipped out, no tragic wartime romance could seem anything but old hat. After the Eichmann trial, no Holocaust novel could shock me.

Yet Blake has found what for me is a previously unexplored corner of that war—twelve months while London is being bombed and the U.S. is trying to stay neutral—and used it to pose important questions.

How do we cope with our world being destroyed? You don’t know where the next bomb is going to fall; if you put a loved one on a train or ship to safety it may itself be destroyed. Is it better to keep them near? What do you do when you lose your home? Your neighbor? Your mother?

More importantly, how do we live our ordinary lives knowing other people are suffering these horrors? Frankie’s colleague Harriet has been collecting the brief reports and hints coming out of Germany describing what is being done to the Jews, but no one wants to hear about it. Iris’s friend Harry keeps a lonely vigil every night, convinced that a German submarine may be headed for Cape Cod, but others in town make fun of him. As Frankie asks Murrow:

“What are we doing back home, Ed? What are people doing, for Christ’s sake?”

“Living their lives.”

“How can they be?”

Yet we do, even now.

Questions like these lurk in the background of this engrossing novel, while we follow the trajectories set in motion by the characters’ decisions and twisted by outside events, including an undelivered letter. Blake’s unsentimental yet compassionate tone makes us care about these characters even as she avoids the all-too-common pitfall of romaticising the war. I fell into the world of this novel and stayed there right to its satisfying conclusion.

Have you read a novel that you found both absorbing and thought-provoking?

All for Nothing, by Walter Kempowski

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To this last novel, published a year before his death in 2007, Kempowski brings all the experiences of his long life. Born in 1929 in Hamburg, he was caught up in WWII, at 15 witnessing the East Prussian refugees in Rostock, the coastal town where he grew up. Soon after, he learned that his father had been killed.

He escaped to the west at the end of the war, but on a 1948 visit back to Rostock, now occupied by the Russians, he and his mother and brother were arrested for espionage and sent to a Soviet prison. Released, he was deported to West Germany and became one of that country’s most famous authors.

Drawing on these experiences, Kempowski crafts a story of an East Prussian family continuing to live their normal, even banal, lives while the first Baltic refugees fleeing the approaching Russians begin to pass their estate. Eberhard van Globig is serving in Italy, leaving his beautiful, if vague, wife Katharina to drift around their manor house or visit her pregnant friend in the nearby town while his elderly aunt actually runs the household and his twelve-year-old son Peter is tutored by a schoolmaster too old to fight who comes out from the town every day.

They welcome refugees that come to the door, sharing their food with them and enjoying the songs or stories the travelers bring. It breaks up the monotony of their lives. However, we learn later that each refugee has filched something from the van Globigs before leaving. Then the self-important head trustee of the local Labor Front, who lives in the new settlement across the road and considers himself their pseudo-mayor, decides to start billeting more refugees in the manor.

Underneath the details of the days, calm, somewhat repetitive, sprinkled with quotes from poems and folksongs, there are questions being asked over and over. Should we leave now? How close are the Russians? Will our forces turn them back? If we leave, where should we go? Should we turn back or go forward?

The family exists in a pre-war bubble of serenity, Peter playing with his train set, adding to his treehouse, looking at things with his new microscope, even as the train of Baltic refugees swells and the sound of guns grows louder. The scenes grow more and more surreal.

What makes this story so remarkable is its unsentimental, objective tone. The author never even hints at what we should think about these people and their actions, letting us draw our own conclusions. The characters are given to us whole, with all their kindnesses and cruelty. Each is formed by the live they’ve lived; none are totally good or totally bad.

But always we have the title. Each of the characters—refugees, family, other locals—is obsessed with what to take when they go and mourns what they have left behind. Auntie insists on thoroughly cleaning the manor before they embark.

What do we leave behind? What use is all our learning, the poems we’ve memorised, the love we’ve given or deaths we’ve mourned? What sense can we make of life when fate so randomly bestows both favors and misfortunes? In wartime, we are constantly reminded of the capriciousness of fate. One family on a road packed with refugees is killed by a bomb while others are not. One son is killed in battle and another is not.

This quiet but intense book makes us consider all these ‘last questions’. It carries the weight of our not-so-long-ago history, which is always happening all over again. What could be more timely than a novel about refugees? It also has much to tell us about human nature. And then there’s the title.

What novel have you read that seems to carry an entire life’s worth of experience?

Lisette’s List, by Susan Vreeland

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In 1937, young Lisette Roux and her husband André leave their beloved Paris and move to the south of France, to the small Provençal village of Roussillon to care for André’s grandfather Pascal.

Once an ochre miner, Pascal loved paintings whose pigments used his ochre. By exchanging his homemade frames for paintings by destitute artists, Pascal had acquired eight works of art. These paintings have grown in value as the fame of the artists grew, but their worth is beyond money to Pascal. He wants to be sure that André and Lisette understand their true worth and will protect them when he himself is gone.

The story is from Lisette’s point of view, first her misery at leaving Paris and the art world she is just beginning to move into, hoping for a job at a gallery, then her growing love for Pascal and Roussillon. She keeps track of her vows and promises to herself of what she will do in her lifetime.

All too soon, their life in Provence is overtaken by World War II. André hides the paintings before going off to fight, leaving Lisette to manage without his income. When the Germans occupy Roussillon, they are determined to find Pascal’s paintings.

In this final book from the author of books such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and The Passion of Artemisia, we have the combination of historical fiction and a deep appreciation of art that we’ve come to expect from Vreeland. Along with Lisette, we are introduced to artists such as Pissaro, Cezanne and Picasso. The descriptions of the paintings and of Provence itself are luscious.

So why did I grow a little bored towards the middle of the story? Partly it was because these artists were not new to me. Partly it was because Lisette, the girl from Paris, seemed to accomplish new things without any trouble at all. Acquire and learn to care for a goat and chicken? No problem. Figure out how to make cheese and candies good enough to sell? Child’s play. She does face some challenges with the Germans and a man in town, it’s true. But I had a bigger problem with the book.

What we expect in a story is a protagonist with an overwhelming need or goal who faces obstacles to achieving what she’s set out to do. We expect there to be an external journey as she confronts these obstacles, as well as an internal journey as she learns more about herself and changes as a result of her inner and outer conflicts. We expect the stakes to be high for both.

The problem for me was that while Lisette certainly had an eventful outer journey, one with high stakes, she didn’t have much of an inner journey. She does have those vows and promises; she does want to be part of the art world, but it all seems rather vague. The stakes are low or non-existent for her inner journey. She doesn’t change by the end of the book. After eleven years, she’s still the same naïve young woman who came to Roussillon.

However, I’m glad I read the book, if only for the descriptions of life in Roussillon and of how the paintings affected Lisette and others. I’m grateful for the opportunity to think about the uses of art in our day-to-day lives, outside of museums and galleries.

What novel about art and artists have you enjoyed?

Crooked Heart, by Lissa Evans

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Lissa Evans’s fourth novel is set in and around London during the Blitz in WWII. The characters are ordinary people, not homefront heroes like midwives or wardens or detectives. Well, I say ordinary, but like the best fiction, Crooked Heart shows us how extraordinary each life may be.

In the remarkable prologue, we are introduced to orphaned 10-year-old Noel who lives with his godmother in Hampstead. Mattie, a suffragette in her younger days, has retained her free-thinking ways, treating Noel to an eccentric and wonderful education. However, she is beginning to suffer from dementia. As she struggles to remember words and where she put things, the wordplay and accommodations between Mattie and Noel are wonderful to behold.

I’m generally not fond of prologues, but I loved this one. In fact, I thought it the best part of the book.

All good things come to an end, including Mattie, and ostensibly under the care of her cousins, Noel is evacuated to St. Albans. Unprepossessing and limping from a bout with polio, Noel is the last child to find a home. Finally, Vera Sedge snatches him up for the sake of the stipend and extra rations she’ll receive.

Vera, known as Vee, is a widow who barely makes ends meet by sewing notions for hats and engaging in various small money-making schemes. She has little affection to spare for Noel since she is absorbed in waiting on her no-good grown son and elderly mother who spends her time writing letters to Churchill.

Noel, however, is quite brilliant and, thanks to Mattie, creative at coming up with unusual solutions to problems. He and Vee become partners in petty crime.

Much of the joy in this book is seeing how their relationship develops. The description of wartime London, where the two conduct their activities, is brilliant. More than what it’s like to take refuge from the bombs in a shelter or the unsettling disappearance of buildings, we learn about the plethora of minor crime going on while ordinary mores seem to be suspended. I also enjoyed the glimpses of regular life continuing during the Blitz, how people adjust to the new normal.

Much of the story is light-hearted, but it has its dark side—and I’m not just talking about bombs. The reader cannot help but share Vee’s ongoing panic about how to make ends meet and the extremes she’s willing to go to in order to pay the rent—just like today when so many are struggling to survive.

How can you not consider stealing a loaf of bread if your children are hungry? And I’m not just talking about the Blitz or Jean Valjean. People are starving today, even in the richest country in the world. People—especially single mothers—are unable to pay the rent and are thrown onto the street.

I’m sure there are those who would describe this novel as charming or heart-warming. Perhaps it is my own background that makes me so aware of the shadow of desperate poverty that haunts the comic shenanigans of Vee and Noel. As in drawing, thought, the shading adds depth and power to this story.

Have you read a novel that is by turns funny and sad, light-hearted and dark?