Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Cool and Lonely Courage by Susan Ottaway ****

World War II opened doors for women. Rosie the Riveter and other stories of women on the home front have been embraced by popular culture, but women were also on the front lines. This book is the story of two sisters, Eileen and Jacqueline Nearne, who were in advance of the front lines, as British spies in occupied France where they supported the French resistance. The were armed, in leadership positions, and even captured and tortured. The only difference between them and the male spies, is that after the war was over, they were not recognized and supported like the men. This was the 1940s and 1950s, did you expect otherwise?

Eileen (Didi) Nearne recently died leaving a treasure trove of letters and papers. Detail research based on these letters and declassified documents has for the first time allowed this story to be told in Cool and Lonely Courage by Susan Ottaway.

The was a time when women were in transition, some progress had been made, but much would have to wait for the 1960s and beyond. When Didi was captured by the Gestapo, she assume the role of an ignorant girl. Through this ruse, even though she was tortured, including the now famous waterboarding, she did not give any information to the Gestapo. She was subsequently sent to concentration camps in Germany.
She adopted a puzzled look and said that she didn't know what they meant. Shouting at her now, he told her that she was a very stupid girl...
 Didi was smart enough to take advantage of the prejudices of the time. This was a time when no one was embarrassed to write
The student, though a woman, has definitely got leaders' qualities.
In summary the book tells and interesting and important story. It does suffer from a problem common to much historical writing. The book read more like a excerpts and news reports strung together than a gripping narrative. This is the eternal struggle between history and historical fiction. When reading historical biographies, I often find myself wishing for a little more fiction to bring life to the story.

Personal note: I learned in this book that while the United Nations waited for their iconic building on the east side of Manhattan, they had offices at Sperry Gyroscope in Lake Success, Long Island. Jacqueline work at the U.N. for years. During this same time, my father was working there. Lake Success continued to play a role in my life when years later my mother moved us to Great Neck to attend the well-regarded high school near Lake Success. On a more trivial note, the summer I snuck home a box turtle from camp, it spent a couple of days in our bathtub before being liberated in Lake Success. I think of it and hope if it survived its hundred mile displacement, and even found some more of its kind.

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