Book review, Non-fiction

Book Review: Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon

She’s a rebel, she’s always laughing, and she’s very, very feminine…

April is the month of both Easter and ANZAC day – the day when New Zealanders remember and honour the New Zealand and Australian soldiers and nurses that served at war.  I’m not religious, but it’s poignant to have a single month where we have two holidays to commemorate human sacrifice for the sins of others.

I wanted this month’s reading to have an ANZAC related theme so I chose two books set in WW2.  The two I chose were The Wish-child by Catherine Chidgey (a NZ author) and the biography of Nancy Wake by Russell Braddon.  Almost by accident, I also bought The Boy in the striped Pyjamas but that book will have to stay on my TBR list for a bit.  I’ll review The Wish Child in my next post, but for now I want to talk about Nancy Wake.

I first discovered Nancy when the Wellington City Council put up a memorial to her at Oriental Bay.  I knew when I read the memorial that I wanted to learn more about her.  

Strictly speaking, Nancy Wake isn’t an ANZAC in that she didn’t serve for either New Zealand or Australia.  However she is a New Zealand born Australian who served under Britain during WWII and that’s good enough for me.

Nancy was a British Special Agent, and a leader in the French Resistance.  I knew from the memorial that Nancy Wake was a special and courageous woman.  Now having read Russell Braddon’s biography, I’ve come to realise that Nancy Wake was straight up extraordinary! She is one of the most bad-ass, quick witted, foul-mouthed, hard drinking, hard-fighting and ballsy women I’ve ever read about – real or fiction!  She is now firmly at the top of my list of inspirational people!  What makes her exploits even more impressive is that Nancy was only 26 when she parachuted back into France.  Twenty-freaking-six!!!

After the fall of France, Nancy became a courier for the French Resistance and later helped to smuggle downed pilots and captured soldiers out of France.  Nancy eventually became enough of a nuisance to the Germans that the Gestapo, who knew her only as The White Mouse, had her at the top of their most wanted list and offered five million francs for her head!

By 1943, the Gestapo were catching up to Nancy and she had to flee the country.  Her husband stayed behind in France. Not long after she left, he was sadly tortured and killed by the Gestapo in their attempt to find Nancy.

Once she reached Britain, Nancy joined the Special Operations Executive.  She was trained in espionage, weapons, combat and sabotage before parachuting back into France in 1944.  Nancy spent most of her time co-ordinating and leading attacks on Nazi held factories, infrastructure, and facilities.  While raiding a factory, she killed an SS sentry with her bare hands.  She’s also known for having cycled 500km through Nazi occupied territory in 72 hours in order to replace radio codes lost during a German attack on her encampment.

When he was writing the book, Nancy said to Braddon, “don’t you dare write me one of those miserable war books full of horror. My war was filled with laughter and people I loved.”  This says a lot about Nancy’s character and the overall tone of the book.  Nancy wanted the book to be about the people in the Resistance rather than focused on the horrors of war.  Apart from Nancy herself, the book boasts a diverse and interesting cast.  My favourite was easily Denis Rake – a wonderfully camp wireless operator who frequently gets rip-roaring drunk and has a habit of calling everyone Ducky.

Russell Braddon’s book is surprisingly easy to read considering that it was first published in 1956.  The language is punchy, the sentences short, and the pace is fairly rapid.  I found I was unable to put the book down as I was so engrossed in Nancy’s exploits.

There are some cringey parts; particularly  the author’s insistence on labouring the point that Nancy was still very feminine despite also being a soldier.  I also wish Braddon had left in Nancy’s more colourful language instead of hinting at it.  I understand why, in the 1950s, he had to leave it out.  But I would fucking love to know exactly what insults she screamed at the backs of her fleeing men to make them turn and fight!

YA books that feature strong female leads – like The Hunger Games, and Divergent, have become very popular in the last couple of years.  If that is the kind of book you enjoy I encourage you to pick this up and give it a go even if you don’t normally go for non-fiction.  It’s got everything those other books have – love, friendship, tragedy, courage, and a female lead who wipes the floor with the opposition.  The only difference is that this woman actually existed and her story is real.

All in all, I loved this book and I am in complete awe of the woman who inspired it.  The copy I have at the moment is a library copy, however I’m going to look for a copy to buy as this book is going on my 100 list.  I will definitely read it again and I want to be able to lend it out to anyone who hasn’t heard of her yet.  It is a terrible indictment on New Zealand and Australia that Nancy Wake is still relatively unknown here.

Nancy Wake died in 2011, age 98.

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