A review of
D-Day Girls: The Spies Who Armed the Resistance, Sabotaged the Nazis, and Helped Win World War II
Hardback: Crown, 2019
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Reviewed by Emily Joy Stroble
“Dear Madam,” begins the letter received by Mrs. Odette Sansom in Sarah Rose’s thrilling and detailed account of female spies who laid the groundwork for the allied invasion of France in World War II.
The letter continues: “your name has been passed to me with the suggestion that you have qualifications and information which may be of value in this stage of the war effort.” In other words, Odette Sansom, the French wife of a British soldier and mother of two had what might be called, “a particular skill set.”
Whether it was James Bond’s gadgets, Mission Impossible’s theme song, or Alfred Hitchcock’s films, many of us have wondered if we have what it takes to be a spy. Odette Sansom was recruited for her native French speaking ability, a cool head, and deep anger at Nazi occupation of her homeland.
From the first page, Rose brings her story to life in cinematic detail, spotlighting the real-life drama and intrigue which inspired the fictions which fascinate us. By focusing a tight lens in on Odette, she brings the reader into the dark days of war and the personal lives, and moral dilemmas, and difficult choices which often blend into the background of the conflict.
The first few chapters progress similar to a series of short stories as the readers are introduced to key male and female players in the Strategic Operations Executive( SOE) and the clandestine work that would permanently change warfare. Building on recently declassified files, Rose continually surprises. For example, several of the greatest female operatives were middle-aged and agents were perilously vulnerable to discovery as they insisted on keeping paper records and rented houses next-door to Gestapo headquarters.
Rose takes two big risks in her writing style which sometimes undermine the thrill and momentum of her narrative. First, she introduces about a dozen principal characters with real names, code names, and aliases(a situation which actually created confusion and danger in the real french underground, as Rose explains.) Because Rose unfolds the story chronologically, interweaving the stories of agents, a character might disappear for several chapters before appearing again months and pages later. While going to ground is a clever spy trick, and while this approach helps to build the tension of the story, the reader can lose track of characters and the emotional and personal significance of each isolated piece of their story.
Second, Rose appears to be tempted like many a great historian to fill in the background of her story in great detail. Any good landscape painter (did you know Churchill painted?) will tell you that perspective is lost in a painting if a background is painted in equal detail to the foreground. While action appears in lifelike detail, trees half a mile away are mere smudges. Often after an engrossing story about Yvonne, the tiny, forty-four-year-old with a special knack for explosives, or a thrilling tale of capture, Rose will break off to explain Churchhill’s war conference in Casablanca or French politics. Historical context and a big picture view are, of course, crucial to informative non-fiction. And certainly, the information dealing directly with Rose’s principle players must have its limitations. But the reader wonders if some chapters might have better aided the book’s momentum as paragraphs.
Rose’s greatest strength in this book, however, is her ability to polish the facts to reveal the human story. A great example is a middle chapter, agents Andrée and Gilbert wait tensely through the revolving moons for weapons to supply their growing network. The agents’ exhaustion and frustration are punctuated by quoted radio messages. As months go by with few guns and orders, Rose lets the terse, brittle words of the radio messages speak for themselves and gradually make up the majority of the words on the page. In chapters like these Rose brilliantly blends the raw materials of historical documents with the emotional narrative.
Nevertheless, D-Day Girls lives up to expectations as a complex and interesting tale of incredible bravery under unimaginable pressure. The best historical non-fiction finds in the mass of stories that intersect in a world-altering event, the important story which is not told.
Rose has chosen several very significant voices to stand at the center of her book. In her skillful hands, their stories become more than just engaging adventures. Rose gets at questions which still matter to us today. As spy handlers and politicians argue in smoke-filled chambers whether or not to deploy female saboteurs, the question of women’s roles, in combat and the world are debated. Considering ethics of militarizing individuals who had always been non-combatants—which gave the first female spies an advantage of invisibility—calls into question the ethics of using spies at all. In a war which witnessed so many civilian deaths in urban bombings, torture, and genocide, spies wandered into a dangerous darkness where, without the protection of a uniform, even the harsh rules of war did not apply. These women risked unimaginable, and particular, cruelty and torture when they gave up civilian safety. Why go? Rose gives us a window into their reasons and into the justification for clandestine oppositions in the name of liberty and justice. These questions and reasons bring to mind questions of why we are so fascinated with spy stories in the first place.
Why do we love stories of deception, violence, and life in the moral grey? Rose begins her book with Odette, an important choice. Of all the heroines Rose narrates, few, if any, are the “likely” choice. But Odette may be the unlikeliest of them all. A mother of two young girls, a cultured woman of reasonable means and unused to privation, Odette seems to have quite a few good reasons not to go to France. Boredom seems a poor motivator, but Rose describes Odette as an unsatisfied housewife. What would you do for a little adventure?
Perhaps what fascinates us about stories of clandestine operations, particularly in WWII, is that in the context of so clearly demarcated lines of good and evil ends, wild and dangerous means are justified. Rose tells stories of people who found their stride in clandestine work, found a place for skills and traits that would not have fit in any other, kinder, world. But those same stories include feature betrayal, affairs, agents motivated by hate, selfishness, and pride overshadowing any commitment to justice. Do not expect clean-cut, beautiful heroes. It is interesting to me how fragile love and family are among the spies. A romance which survives Nazi prison ends in a peace-time divorce. Affairs and betrayal are commonplace. All agents were compromised promises, responsibility, and principle to complete Churchhill’s “butcher and bolt” operations. It begs the question: how does one create a code of ethics which keeps a rationalized moral compromise from turning into moral hemorrhage? They would also live with their choices and actions their whole lives. The decision to enter this dark world is a unique sacrifice which deserves to be remembered.
As Christians, the question of when ends justify means should be challenging to us. We should wrestle with questions about “good lies,” and the sacrifice and hardship necessary for victory. The world is complex in its brokenness. Books like D-Day Girls, which draw us in from a wide, finished, outcome-focused view of history, into the personal choices, failings, and victories of real people are as important for our edification and the development of our empathy as they are for our entertainment and education.
Emily Joy Stroble is a writer, artist and conesseur of the bizzare. Currently working as an Editorial Assistant at Zondervan in Grands Rapids, Michigan, she enjoys getting her hands deep in the soil of words and ideas and helping books grow. Her reviews have appeared in The Banner and she contributes regularly to the post calvin. You can follow her musing on Twitter @Emyforthebirds.