Carve Her Name With Pride - Book Review
Yesterday was National Book Day and Sunday is International Women's Day, so it seems fitting that I'm writing about a book about an awesome woman. Shamefully, this is one of those books I probably would never have read if it hadn't been given to me as a gift, but I am so glad it was. Carve Her Name with Pride is the true story of Violette Szabo, a woman who grew up in Brixton, London in the 1930s and became a spy for the French Resistance in World War II. The book is written more as a factual biography than a story, so this is less of a review and more just me saying "look how awesome this woman was!"
The first half of the book talks about Violette's childhood and her life in London, which is really a big build up to her becoming a spy. The back of the book literally tells you the entire story, so I don't think it's ruining too much if I summarise the first half for you. (Spoiler alerts don't apply to WWII history!)
Violette Bushell was born in Paris to a British father and French Mother in 1921. The family moved to London when she was very young and she grew up in Stockwell, working briefly at Woolworths on Oxford Street. In 1940 at age 19 she met 31-year-old Hungarian-Born French officer Étienne Szabo during a Bastille Day parade and after just 42 days they got married.
After their honeymoon, Étienne went to fight in South Africa, Eritrea and the Syria. Violette wanted to help with the war effort and joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) (the women's voluntary services during WWII) eventually training as a predictor and then as a gunner for the anti-aircraft battery. She was posted to Cheshire from December 1941 to February 1942, but found out she was pregnant and left to return to London where she bought a flat in Notting Hill.
On the 8th June 1942 Violette gave birth to her daughter Tania at St Mary's hospital in Paddington. During this time, Étienne was stationed in North Africa.
Tania was given to child minders while Violette went back to work, this time at an aircraft factory in South Morden. In October of the same year, Étienne was killed. He had not seen his wife since their honeymoon and had never seen his daughter. Violette didn't find out about his death for many months after his letters stopped arriving, but during that time she never gave up hope and presumed he had been captured. When she learned the truth, she was obviously devastated.
From her tireless work helping the war effort, Violette was offered the chance to train as a field agent by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). She accepted, as she felt it the best way of fighting the enemy responsible for her husband's death.
The second half of the book describes Violette's secret missions in France. As you can tell, she had already been through so much before the age of 22, and I haven't even gone into detail. The book has quotes from teachers and colleagues who knew her growing up, and it's obvious from how they describe her that she wasn't a normal woman. Violette is described repeatedly as being "fearless", from climbing trees as a small child, walking to work during the Blitz when bombs were literally falling around her, and then agreeing to risk torture and death to help her country, despite having a very young daughter.
Her fearlessness continued throughout her training and missions as she learnt to parachute from planes, fire weapons and evade the Germans, who were constantly searching for her. She was captured and interrogated a number of times, but never gave away any secrets. On her final mission, she proved how truly courageous she was when she fought dozens of Germans single handedly, allowing her friend to escape before she herself was captured, imprisoned and tortured. I'll let you read the rest in the book, or on Wikipedia if you'd rather. Either way, it's a truly staggering story.
Needless to say, Violette died a hero after making a great contribution to the war effort, and her daughter was awarded the George Cross in her honour. A statue of her sits above the memorial for the SOE, which you can find on Albert Embankment, just a bit further west along the river from the London Eye.
My knowledge of history, and the wars in particular, is appallingly sketchy and I do tend to avoid reading anything that involves lots of details like dates, army ranks, battles and other things that escape my head as soon as I've read them. However, after I reached the half way point I couldn't put this book down, even though I knew what was going to happen, and I had tears in my eyes as I read the final page on the train. Even though it's not written in a particularly emotional or descriptive way, I can't imagine anyone not being pulled into the story of this amazing woman.