You don’t call it a World War unless the war affects almost everyone in the world. That is why there seems to be pockets of stories about WWII which we might not have heard about before now. One of the most fascinating secrets from the 1940’s is the subversive activities of the British. The SOE (Special Operations Executive) in charge of espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in Occupied Europe was sometimes referred to as the Baker Street Irregulars (based on their location which is infamously connected to Sherlock Holmes). Also colloquially known as Churchill’s Secret Army, this government organization not only used men, but also had a special Section F which trained and sent women into the field at a time when women were mainly considered as auxiliary units. 55 female agents were sent out as radio operators and couriers with 13 being killed in action, many who died in concentration camps. Their expectations included unarmed combat but they were also trained to use weapons. Once the war was over, the SOE was disbanded. Unfortunately, since these women were not enlisted soldiers, they didn’t get the recognition their male counterparts received. It wasn’t until recently that well deserved medals have been awarded and even then the women had to jump through hoops to prove they deserved this honor.
In her research of this scenario, Pam Jenoff discovered a treasure trove of drama both on and off the field to include in her historical novel, The Lost Girls of Paris. There was secret love, bravery, courageous actions, questionable decisions, rogue behaviors, personal sacrifice, and finally betrayal, all packed into a relatively brief period of time.
To portray these events, Jenoff chose to follow the lives of three women. The book begins in early 1946, shortly after the war had ended, where American Grace Healey, a young war widow, accidentally finds a suitcase left under a bench in Grand Central Station. Opening it to take a peak inside she pulls out an envelope with twelve labeled photographs each featuring a different girl. Her determined quest to uncover the whys and wherefores behind this discovery is a running theme throughout the book.
Next we meet Eleanor Trigg, the one in charge of the secret female agents who were sent to France with their radios to decipher and transmit coded messages to assist the success of the French Resistance and clear the way for the anticipated arrival of American Troops. This time frame in 1944 included the weeks leading up to D Day in Normandy where the importance of their work superseded everything, including the safety of those in the field. Trigg, feeling responsible for the girls she recruited, kept watch over their activities and wanted answers when anything went awry.
Finally, there is Marie Roux, a single mom, whose motivation for taking on this task is questionable. While fluent in French, there were certain aspects of her character which made her a less than stellar candidate for the position, despite the extensive training she and the other women endured. Yet she still was called to duty and sent to France, expected to execute orders without question (even though following orders was not her strong suit). Through Marie we get into the nitty gritty of espionage, with undercover air flights, hidden radios, and sabotage, all while hiding in plain sight despite the ever present Germans literally living next door. Spoiler Alert: Not everything runs smoothly.
Pam Jenoff, known for the novel The Orphan’s Tale as well as other stories based on WWII and the Holocaust, has found another tale which highlights the heroic role of women during wartime. Parts of this novel were fascinating but despite the fact that it was inspired by real events, some of the details seemed too far fetched to pass the smell test. Even if true, the complexities of the situation were so simplified as to be ridiculous at times which took away from the seriousness of the situation. However, the plot quickly flowed through the eyes of the three women and the reader can’t help rooting for their eventual success despite the reality that when it comes to war there isn’t always a big bow to wrap up a happily ever after ending. The best we can hope for is a couple of colorful ribbons.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.