Courage in war and love – inspired by the true story of a female British spy working with the French Resistance (London and France, 1936-1944): How is it that we don’t know the name Nancy Wake, “the most decorated woman of WWII”? Awarded medals of honor from three countries for her bravery, leadership, and cunning saving thousands of lives during the years Hitler rose to power persecuting Jews and when Germany invaded the South of France.
We’re not the only ones who hadn’t heard of Nancy Wake. Ariel Lawhon writes in her informative Author’s Note that when she first heard about Nancy from a dear friend, she’d “never read any story like it – much less a true one!” Adding, that “in all my years researching and writing historical fiction, I’ve never come across such a bold, bawdy, brave woman . . . amazed by her exploits.” Lawhon’s three years of research and amazement factor into crafting this amazing historical novel about an eye-catching woman who could match any man.
The photo above captures this captivating woman, a journalist-turned-spy who used her seductiveness as a powerful weapon, but wasn’t afraid to use a real one when she had to. What you don’t see is her trademark red lipstick, her “armor”: Elizabeth Arden’s Victory Red, “a slender tube of courage.” Interestingly, the lipstick was launched during the war to inspire a fighting spirit. Nancy personified a fighter, wore the lipstick to telegraph she was.
Nancy Wake was a dynamo. Her real name is the least used in this masterly novel of codes. In a shrewd, tantalizing voice, she confides in the opening line of Code Name Hélène, Lawhon’s riveting fourth novel, “I have gone by many names.”
Nancy Grace Augusta Wake was born in New Zealand, grew up in Australia, a country she fled at the age of sixteen, already signaling she’s gutsy. Proven over and over in the four pseudonyms she audaciously assumed before and during WWII. She loathed the Nazis after witnessing their brutality against innocent Jews when she covered a story as a Paris-based journalist working for the Hearst Newspaper Group.
Code names are listed on a one-page prologue of sorts, summarizing the roles she brilliantly played as that “fighter,” and “the smuggler,” “the spy,” and “the target.”
These names help organize this seat-of-your pants novel so immersive its 450 pages whiz by. Reading it feels like you’re in the midst of watching the most suspenseful, affecting movie you’ve seen in a long time. Not only because so many lives were at stake, including hers, but she left behind a “Great Love” in Marseille, on the Riviera – her irresistible husband Henri Focca, “the most notorious heartbreaker in all of France.”
On page nine we’re told there’s a husband, but their intoxicating love affair evolves and interweaves. Sometimes in his falling-madly-in-love, willing-to-do-anything for her voice, breathing sexual bantering and passion into Nancy’s war chapters. As Nancy gets deeper into the French Resistance spying for the British, she has no idea if Henri’s safe as she was away fighting the Germans when they invaded where their home was – overlooking the Mediterranean, a vital port town – ending the so-called Free Zone under the Vichy government in southern France.
Writing two intense storylines – war and profound love – must have been exhausting and stirring.
Here’s a thumbnail sketch of Nancy’s identities and escapades:
- As Madame Andrée she was a socialite journalist in Paris when she watched in horror a Nazi whipping, dehumanizing, a Jewish woman on a public square, surrounded by “brownshirts” who were “tormenting Vienna Jewish shopkeepers.” You can count on her meeting up with this Nazi again, when he plans to kill her and her right-hand man. His is the face that thickens her blood, makes her fearless.
- Hélène is the first alias we meet in Chapter One, eight years or so after the other names. She’s parachuting in the dark out of a Royal Air Force bomber plane The Liberator into enemy territory in a strategic mountainous French region, Auvergne. It’s the first time she’s ever been dropped from the sky, having completed, excelled at, grueling training by Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE). Two teammates are jumping with her: an indispensable, Hungarian radio operator Denis Rake glued to BBC’s French Radio Service, and her partner Hubert, a spare-no-words, former Army soldier she didn’t like in training, but now depends on. How Nancy ended up in this death-defying situation executing her mission is told in heroic war chapters alternating between 1944 and her past adventures, with a romance that converges like none other.
Besides critical radio communications – deciphering secret codes with instructions, and transmitting equipment requests and field updates – a bicycle is another life-saver for delivering messages to the French Resistors hiding out in the region’s scattered small villages. Bicycles are everywhere, allowing her to blend in. In one muscle-aching scene, you will not believe the inner strength she draws upon to get the word out.
Leading the resistors so they can “wage their unique brand of guerrilla warfare,” she must first earn their respect. Formidable for the “maquisards” who viewed her sexually and weren’t “formal soldiers” but willing to “make one last, desperate stand against Hitler’s invaders.”
Whatever you call her, Nancy earns everyone’s respect.
- Lucienne Carlier is the name she adopted in Marseille when she and Henri were married and living extravagantly. He made his money in his father’s shipbuilding business, a despicable character, another storyline. Henri’s love is beautifully selfless, understanding he couldn’t stop his wife from smuggling Jewish refugees to safety, jeopardizing her own.
- The Germans dubbed her The White Mouse once Nancy keeps outsmarting them. Naturally, she becomes a prime target on their kill-list.
One defying scene after another fills the pages with high-stakes drama. The prose varies its pace, intensifying the impact. It flows from long sentences to clipped ones; sometimes a single word is a sentence, followed by a sequence of more one word sentences. An effective technique that strengthens the “extreme” of “inhuman, barbaric” crimes against humanity, “beyond the pale of what one human should do to another.”
A radically differently type of extreme is also here. It’s what makes love noble, courageous.
Lawhon’s literary range is extreme. Moods and emotions go from vivid, movie-like war stories that show the very worst of us to the pinnacle of the very best of us.