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

by Sonia Purnell

Paperback, 2020

Call number




Penguin Books (2020), Edition: Reprint, 368 pages


Biography & Autobiography. History. Women's Studies. Nonfiction. HTML:A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER Chosen as a BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR by NPR, the New York Public Library, Amazon, the Seattle Times, the Washington Independent Review of Books, PopSugar, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, BookBrowse, the Spectator, and the Times of London Winner of the Plutarch Award for Best Biography �??Excellent�?�This book is as riveting as any thriller, and as hard to put down.�?� �?? The New York Times Book Review "A compelling biography of a masterful spy, and a reminder of what can be done with a few brave people �?? and a little resistance." - NPR "A meticiulous history that reads like a thriller." - Ben Macintyre A never-before-told story of Virginia Hall, the American spy who changed the course of World War II, from the author of Clementine. In 1942, the Gestapo sent out an urgent transmission: "She is the most dangerous of all Allied spies. We must find and destroy her." The target in their sights was Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite who talked her way into Special Operations Executive, the spy organization dubbed Winston Churchill's "Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare." She became the first Allied woman deployed behind enemy lines and�??despite her prosthetic leg�??helped to light the flame of the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it. Virginia established vast spy networks throughout France, called weapons and explosives down from the skies, and became a linchpin for the Resistance. Even as her face covered wanted posters and a bounty was placed on her head, Virginia refused order after order to evacuate. She finally escaped through a death-defying hike over the Pyrenees into Spain, her cover blown. But she plunged back in, adamant that she had more lives to save, and led a victorious guerilla campaign, liberating swathes of France from the Nazis after D-Day. Based on new and extensive research, Sonia Purnell has for the first time uncovered the full secret life of Virginia Hall�??an astounding and inspiring story of heroism, spycraft, resistance, and personal triumph over shocking adversity. A Woman of No Importance is the breathtaking story of how one woman's fierce persist… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member JanaRose1
During WWII, Virginia Hall risked her life over and over, as a spy in occupied France. During the beginning of the war, she created a vast organization of contacts, busted fellow spies out of jail, and relayed on-the-ground intelligence about German troop movements, numbers, and the day-to-day
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condition. After her cover was blown, she escaped over the mountains in the dead of winter with a prosthetic leg. Once back in England, she demanded to be sent back to France. Upon her return, she coordinated guerilla fighters, blowing up bridges, arranging equipment drops, and reporting back vital information.

Virginia Hall was a fascinating person. I can't imagine her strength and determination. Although the book was slow at times, it was well written and engaging. Overall, well worth picking up.
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LibraryThing member annbury
Virginia Hall was an American who became a major organizer of the French Resistance, a woman of amazing courage, ability, and magnetism. This book describes her accomplishments, and pays tribute to her qualities. So far so good. The problem is that the book is poorly written and could have used
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much, much more editing. Early on, we are continually told how amazing Virginia was, rather than shown. Later, the story gets very cluttered, with little clarity about what was most important, and too many character with too many names and too few defining characteristics. Virginia deserved much, much better, but the book is still worth reading.
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LibraryThing member ConnieJLuton
This is a fascinating true story of the courageous activities of a woman unheard of until now. It’s a sad commentary on our society that women have been so neglected for the vital contributions they have made. Why is it that men have found it so hard to acknowledge the exceptional deeds women
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have accomplished? I have hope that things are changing and everyone is given their due!
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LibraryThing member tangledthread
How is it that I never heard of Virginia Hall before reading this book?
LibraryThing member DGRachel
This is closer to a 2 star read for me than a 3 star, but I feel terrible giving a biography of this amazing woman less than 3 stars. I just can't. I think it should be read or listened to simply for the significance of Virginia's exploits and contribution to the success of Allied intelligence
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services in WWII. Her skill and bravery should be celebrated. The discrimination she faced as a woman in an extremely patriarchal time period and field of service needs to be called out, acknowledged, and prevented from continuing to happen.

However, I found the writing style very dull. If I had tried to read this in print, I do not think I could have slogged through it. I listened to the audiobook narrated by Juliet Stevenson, and while I love her voice, even she couldn't make the dry text engaging. It is a testament to Virgina's story that I managed to finish at all.
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LibraryThing member PennyMck
An outstanding account of one woman's leadership and heroism in the French Resistance during World War II - despite an artificial leg and unrelenting male prejudice
LibraryThing member VashonJim
A remarkable story about a remarkable woman. A great read.
LibraryThing member addunn3
Facinating story about Virginia Hall who was an American who worked as a spy for Britian during WWII in France.
LibraryThing member lauralkeet
A Woman of No Importance is the fascinating story of Virginia Hall, an American woman who worked with the British Special Operations Executive, a World War II espionage organization. Hall brushed aside her family’s expectations that she would marry well and play a traditional female role in
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society; instead, she went to England and in 1941 became the first woman assigned to duties in France. Living in Lyon, the center of the French resistance, Virginia became expert at organizing efforts to supply weapons, rescue downed airmen, and provide safe houses. As her knowledge and personal network grew she was able to take on increasingly complex missions and assume leadership roles. Oh, and I almost forgot to mention she did all of this with a disability -- a prosthetic leg -- that would have prevented the average person from even considering this type of work.

Not surprisingly, Virginia had to contend with bias and discrimination. She could often run circles around her superiors. She did not receive promotions and pay increases commensurate with those of male colleagues. And at the end of the war, when Virginia returned to the US as part of the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) and later the CIA, her track record was barely acknowledged and she was relegated to traditional female roles.

Virginia was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government, was made an honorary Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE), and received the Distinguished Service Cross from the United States. And yet, this decorated heroine’s story is barely known here in the US. I am grateful to Sonia Purnell for telling the story of such an inspiring woman.
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LibraryThing member scarylullabies
A thrilling spy story, I was on tenterhooks to see how the operations described played out and concluded. This is one of those nonfiction books you can recommend even to those readers who are strict fiction enthusiasts. Some very basic knowledge of the European theater of WW2 is helpful, but not
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required - and if you already have that knowledge, this book won't bore you recounting details you already know.
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LibraryThing member creighley
Excellent biography of a brave woman. Virginia Hall, a Baltimore socialite, talked her way into Special Operations Executive, Winston Churchill’s spy organization. She established vast spy networks across Europe and became the first woman deployed behind enemy lines and-despite her prosthetic
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leg- helped to inspire the French Resistance, revolutionizing secret warfare as we know it.
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LibraryThing member brenzi
”If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”

Mrs. Thatcher may have had Virginia Hall in mind when she made this statement. It certainly applies, even if her male supervisors seldom wanted to give her the credit she deserved.

Born into a well-to-do American
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family she attended Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, then went to study in Paris and fell in love with France. She really wanted to be an ambassador which was nearly unheard of at the time, but accepted clerical positions at the U.S consulate in Turkey. It was in Turkey, while snipe hunting that she actually shot herself in the foot. Gangrene set in and the leg had to be amputated. She was fitted with a prosthesis which she fondly referred to as Cuthbert and didn’t let it get in the way of what she really wanted to do which was spy for the British government (SOE) for the benefit of her adored France.

She was an incredible secret agent and the tale of her exploits on behalf of the Resistance offers up an inconceivable story. The high point for me was the segment where she led a group over the Pyrenees in the dead of winter, dragging her prosthetic leg, as they escaped from the Germans who were hot on her trail.

She was an amazing woman, who had no desire for recognition, just wanted to do her job. She eventually went on to work for the CIA but was dissatisfied with a desk job. She was meant for high adventure. She craved it. It’s unfortunate that women, regardless of their accomplishments, have to work so much harder than men to prove themselves. Virginia Hall is to be greatly admired.
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LibraryThing member KamGeb
The story was very interesting about a female spy in occupied France. The one problem I had was that the book was written more like a history book than a novel so it gave so many facts and names my head was swimming at times. This book definitely gave me a lot to think about and I learned a lot
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about the war that I wouldn't have known otherwise.
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Quite astonishing true story of courage, determination, and sheer chutzpah! Virginia Hall, an American socialite, becomes one of the most daring and successful leaders of the Resistance in WWII France. This book is very well written and kept me fully engaged throughout. I walk away in awe of her
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courage and wishing her story was better known!
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LibraryThing member ikeman100
Amazing history well told. If you are interested in real spy accounts or France during the Nazi occupation you will love this book. Sometimes it takes the right kind of person at the right time to make a difference. Virginia Hall was the right person.
LibraryThing member marshapetry
Excellent with periods of non-interesting review. Good narrator for audiobook
LibraryThing member breic
The problem with Purnell's hero-worshipping tone is that it makes her untrustworthy. I have no idea how much of this story is real, or is distorted or disputed, nor what Purnell isn't saying. From the subtitle, "Helped win World War II," is a strong assertion, but there's almost nothing here about
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the effectiveness of Virginia Hall's operations. A lot of the stories don't make much sense to me. For example, Purnell constantly hypes Hall's security, in an abstract way. But when she gives details, there seems to have been no security.
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LibraryThing member Helenliz
This is such an interesting story told with a somewhat distracting style quirk.
The bad - the style quirk is that at the end of a seciton or chapter there would be some form of statement or rhetorical question in a short sharp sentence that would act as a lead into the next seciton, where the
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statatement would be immediately proven to be predictive. So an example might be end of seciton 1, "Things couldn't get any worse." Promptly followed by a new section in which something else comes crashing down. It was annoying an seemd to be trying to provide dramatic emphasis in a story that really didn't need any additional dramatic emphasis.
Putting that aside, it is a biography of a remarkable woman who came from a relatively well-to-do background who ended up being one of the most successful agents in France during WW2. She did some remarkable things, and that is before you count the disadvantages against her: female and with an artificial leg. She ought to be a poster woman, and yet I'd not heard of her before.
It's not necessarily an easy read, there is a fair amount of ill treatment of those around her who fall vicitim to some of the more unpleasant elements of the nazi regieme determined to chase her down, and then destroy everything she spent time trying to establish. After the war things get no better, with the CIA hardly being model employers.
There's a lot of detail pieced together here, when you consider that some records have been destryoyed, and some remain underwraps even now, there's quite a few gaps in the record. At times it gets a bit deferrential, lots of reminiscences that are entirely positive. No one is entirely good, there are always some rough edges, and one imagines that someone who managed to achieve all Victoria Hall did wasn't immune to that - she'd have had to have been. All in all it is a very interesting story and told, for the most part, reasonably well. I'm just note sure that the style and balance was necessaruly quite right.
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LibraryThing member rayski
A biography of an amazing woman Virginia Hall. A woman who was constantly overlooked and underestimated, but never let it stop her. She loved her adopted home of France and did everything she could to push the Nazis out. She just might have been the single most influential person (woman or man) to
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start and lead the French Underground. The research by Purnell had to be tremendous because Hall didn't keep notes and didn't want her story told. It's a good read, but because Hall kept a secret life there are lots of gaps in the story where Purnell had to admittedly guess at points of what might have happen. I don't blame Purnell because the data wasn't there, but these gaps do leave me to knock one star off.
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LibraryThing member Judiex
Born into a wealthy family in Baltimore in 1906, Virginia Hall was expected to continue the family tradition, especially when her father did not increase the family’s wealth. Virginia was to regain that position: Live as a socialite, marry a man of means, have children. That was not the pattern
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she followed. For several reasons and in several ways, Virginia took her own path.
She spent a few years in Europe, studying and traveling, and came home just before the stock market crashed. Based on her experiences overseas and her proficiency in languages, she decided to become a US Foreign Service officer. Her application was rejected–only six of the fifteen hundred officers were women. Still determined, she decided to try a different plan.
Fate intervened. Her beloved father, who was severely affected by the depression, died suddenly of a heart attack at age 59. In August 1931, she went to Warsaw to take a job as a clerk in the American Embassy. When the job didn’t provide the type of work she felt she deserved, she transferred to Smyrna. There she had a hunting accident resulting in the loss of her left leg below the knee. After several months of recovery, she was sent back to the US.
Within a year, she went to Italy where she impressed her bosses at the consulate. On her own volition, she assumed duties above her job description and pay grade.
Again, misogyny got in the way and she was unable to be promoted to a higher paying, more responsible position that matched her abilities. Secretary of State Cordell Hull ignored glowing reports from consulate in Venice and told FDR that her disability hampered her performance. “She’d make a fine career girl”remaining in clerical grades. FDR ignored his own career experience despite semiparalysis and didn’t pursue it.
After seven years with no pay raise and seeing her successors receiving higher pay and title, she resigned from State Dept in 3/39. She saw the beginnings of World War II and returned to France to help fight the Nazis, serving as a nurse.
France was in deep trouble, relying on outdated methods, e.g., carrier pigeons. The leaders, old timers, many apathetic, venal, and elitist, acquiesced to the Nazis and gave up their country in only six weeks. Many people in authority were afraid if they resisted, they would be caught and suffered greatly under the Germans. Some tried to impress the Gestapo were even harsher than the Germans were. Petain ordered French troops to fight against the Allies.
Eventually, Virginia began working for the British intelligence service but still based in France. She continued to face gender-bias though she was the most successful Allied female secret agent She was a pioneer of the European conflict, one of the chief pioneers in the field of clandestine warfare working to train, house, and supply incoming troops and help them escape to safer locations, even leading them across mountains in the winter. Without her, the Allies recapture of Paris could not have succeeded the way it did.
After the war, she never sought recognition though she received it from France, England, and, eventually, the US. Her shoddy treatment was later cited within the CIA itself as a textbook case of discrimination against women.
A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE is a very detailed record of the work she did to help defeat the Nazis drive them out of Paris. It tells of many distortions and failures by the CIA, primarily by less than competent people put into positions of authority and the way the anti-Communist fever in the US brought many senior Nazis to the US. It also mentions how members of the French resistance were upset by US troops supplying German POWs with cigarette rations while they were unable to get any.
Tidbit: There was a children’s home in Le Chambon. The town saved the lives of 3000 Jews (children and adults) and became the only village in France to be honored by Israel as Righteous Among the Nations.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
This book is a [psuedo] biography, and clearly, much research went into uncovering this story. I do indeed like biographies and memoirs.

This book is not historical fiction, although I do indeed enjoy reading well written historical fiction.

This book lies somewhere between the two. And it is
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unfortunate while narrating incredible daring-do the author adds language such as, "could it even be"; "that is perhaps how Virginia would have wanted"; "perhaps it was Virginia's eagerness," and on and on. PERHAPS the book could have been written using fewer conjectures and more declarative sentences.
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LibraryThing member John_Warner
This is my last book read and review of this year making a total of 80 books read.

This WWII history book is about a Baltimore socialite, Virginia Hall, who defied social conventions as a handicapped woman and became instrumental for the Allied forces in defeating the Nazism in France. Although
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Winston Churchill did not want women to directly confront the enemy, Virginia was able to convince him to become the first woman of the British spy organization, the Special Operations Executive, to be deployed behind enemy lines. Despite having a prosthetic leg, Virginia trained, financed, and armed a network of "farmers, schoolboys, and factory-workers" to become a network of French Resistance fighters engaged in information-gathering and sabotage. Although wanted posters for her arrest were on display throughout occupied France, her skills and intuition enabled her to avoid capture during her time in France. A well-researched biography of one woman's motivation, endurance, and persistence against sexism, which prepared the way for the Allied invasion on D-Day. This history should be on a reading list for anyone interested in espionage, WW2, or women emancipation.
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LibraryThing member thewanderingjew
A Woman of No Importance, Sonia Purnell, author; Juliet Stevenson narrator
Virginia Hall was a woman with a singular goal. As a United States citizen, when World War II started, she was determined to do her part to defeat Germany in its effort to obtain world domination. However, a few years before,
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while hunting, she forgot to set the safety on her weapon, and she accidentally shot herself, resulting in the amputation of her leg. Although she was fitted with a wooden leg which she handled very well, when she attempted to work with the Armed Forces, they did not want her help, nor did they believe that she could successfully accomplish anything in the war effort with her disability. In addition, she was a woman and work in the field was generally designated for men. Women were thought to be suited for different kinds of work and she was offered administrative jobs, but nothing to excite or challenge her. She wanted to do paramilitary work, organizing and working with guerillas and the resistance. Rejected by the United States, she sought work in England. When, at first, they rejected her also, she went to France and became an ambulance driver in the war zone. Eventually, however, she went to work for the British, SOE, the Special Operations Executive. She eventually proved herself very valuable, but as a woman, she never truly achieved the honor or glory to which she aspired or which she deserved. She was often passed over for missions that were given to men to execute, after she planned them. Still, she never really did seek recognition or glory. She only sought to organize the resistance movement to successfully aid in shortening the war and eventually prevent Hitler’s success.
Virginia worked in France with several identities and disguises. She organized bands of resisters, often losing many of them when they were discovered and often being tricked by those who betrayed them. Each loss was felt like a personal blow to her. Still, for the most part, she successfully impeded Germany’s efforts and helped to liberate Paris. Most of her effort was expended in the area under the control of Marshall Petain who ruled the Vichy government, an area that was promised complete freedom, but eventually was under the complete control of Hitler.
Virginia, known as Diane, La Madone, and other names, assumed various identities and disguises, always successfully disguising her disability, age and beauty. She distributed money, food and weapons, organzed guerilla groups and their efforts at sabotage, and organized unbelievably dangerous and difficult rescues of prisoners. Her own rescue from prison was daring as well. She was unafraid of danger and actually seemed to relish it. She risked her own life hiding and operating a radio that she used to pass coded information which was invaluable to the Allies.
Virginia arranged false papers, false identities, safe houses and dangerous escape routes. Often seeming superhuman in her efforts, once even hiking out of snow covered mountains with her artificial leg that she called Cuthbert, Virginia was a largely unsung heroine. However, though she herself, preferred not to be publicly lauded or given awards, she never did receive the honor or promotions she truly deserved. She did eventually achieve a Captain’s rank and a leadership role that enabled her to lead the resistance groups and their efforts more effectively. In addition to working for the SOE, she also worked for the State Department and the CIA in America. She was eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by President Truman for her work with the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services which was the forerunner of the CIA, the Central Intelligence Agency. Late in life, she found love with Paul Goillot, a fellow resistance worker from Britain. Although smaller in stature than Virginia, and less educated, they were very compatible and eventually married.
The book contained too many names to keep straight without some kind of format to keep track of them, however the narrator did such an excellent job in her reading of it, that the possible tedious nature of the book as it described similar situations again and again was mitigated. Still it felt very long with its main theme concentrating on the lack of women’s rights in the armed forces, and in general. She was a woman scorned by the system, not because she was unqualified, but because of her gender. Her indomitable spirit won out each time as she constantly battled and persevered to accomplish her ultimate ambitious efforts. She was incredibly brave and far heartier than most men and women that were her equals. She was an asset to the war effort.
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LibraryThing member northwestknitter
I experienced this as an audiobook and my review should be considered from that perspective.

Sonia Purnell does an excellent job of researching historical documents and interviewing subjects to piece together the story of Virginia Hall and bring her character and determination to life for the
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reader. By the end of the book I felt like I knew Virginia personally as someone I could relate to and admire. The story itself is interesting and inspiring, a young society lady ignores her family's wishes and aims for a career in diplomacy, comes up against a large amount of discrimination both as a woman and as someone with a disability, and becomes one of the best spies and organizers for the French resistance.

I appreciated the difficulty that Sonia Purnell must have had in gathering information about someone who avoided the limelight and who's work was secret. There are areas where I wanted more information about Virginia Hall's work, particularly at the start of the war while she was working with the British. The book discusses her network at length but doesn't really explain what she or her network was doing. I would have liked to have heard more about what the resistance and her group were specifically doing that thwarted the Nazis, but instead I got the impression that many of the people she was sent to work with were bumbling fools and most of her efforts were in getting them out of trouble.

There were some small issues I had with hearing this book as an audiobook. Chapters did not begin with the chapter titles being stated and there were times when it wasn't clear to me what year we were in and so that context was sometimes missing. As well, there are many people introduced who later have name changes and this was sometimes confusing (in a written book I would have easily flipped back and reread a passage to figure it out). As I said, these issues were small and not worth getting discouraged over.

The narration and sound editing of this audiobook were superb, probably the best I've ever heard. Juliet Stevenson's voice was clear but relaxed and her switching of accents and tone between narration and quotes was almost flawless. I could picture the paragraph breaks, font changes and punctuation on the page as she spoke. The volume was even throughout the book with not one sound of breath or unnecessary pause by the narrator.
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LibraryThing member quondame
I did not enjoy reading this. I don't like WWII narratives and stories in which women have to prove that they are 10x more competent than anyone else to get half as far are just too damp real. Probably why I read fantasy where the women only have to be 2x better and get further. Still it is an
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important narrative of the realities of fighting truly horrific enemies and the costs of success and failure. Virginia Hall is a person who channeled her ego and drive entirely to the purpose of freeing Nazi held France while so many of those around her were unable to cope with the requirements of description, focus and literal self-denial.
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