Lucille Ball once said “Life takes guts,” and, since March celebrates women’s history, I’d like to recommend a few books about women with — excuse the crudeness — guts galore. The first is about a relatively little known French Resistance fighter named Odette Sansom (1912-1995). “Code Name: Lise; The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy” is her story and, although it has been told before, the author, Larry Loftis, tells it again for a new generation, turning Odette’s wartime activities into a kind of nonfiction thriller that’s hard to put down.
Born in Amiens, France, Odette was only 6 when her father, a war hero, was killed in action. She visited his grave every week with her brother and grandparents. When war returns, her grandfather said, it will be your duty to do as well as your father did. Odette suffered countless illnesses in childhood, including a bout of polio that took her sight for three years — an experience that prepared her for the trials to come. At 18, she married an Englishman, Roy Sansom, moved to London and had three children. In 1942, when civilians were asked to send in photos of the French coastline for possible war use, Odette mistakenly sent hers to the War Office. She came to the attention of Col. Maurice Buckmaster of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a sabotage and espionage outfit formed in 1940 with its mission to “set Europe ablaze.” Buckmaster was particularly interested in finding recruits who could pass as locals and Odette’s native French made her a natural asset. She was initially considered “impulsive and hasty in her judgments,” but it was noted that she had the “patriotism and keenness to do something for France.” Despite reservations, the SOE took her on and she met Peter Churchill, an officer who headed a network of agents based in Cannes. Odette began acting as his courier, running messages around the south of France. In a stroke of unbelievably bad luck, another agent fell asleep on a train while carrying a briefcase containing a list of 200 agent names. When he woke up, the briefcase was gone and the list fell into the hands of Hugo Bleicher, the Germans’ master spy-catcher, who infiltrated the network.
Odette and Peter were arrested in April 1943, and sent to a prison outside of Paris. She was interrogated by the Gestapo over 10 times and tortured, her back burned with a red-hot poker and all of her toenails pulled out. Still, she refused to reveal the locations of other agents. She averted attention from Peter, claiming to be the brains of the operation, and cleverly made use of his famous name, although Peter was not related to Winston. She also said they were married. That deception is almost certainly what saved both of their lives. She was condemned to death on two counts, but the order was never carried out. Even the Nazis were hesitant to execute relatives of Winston Churchill. Instead, she was sent into a solitary confinement at the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp. After their defeat, the Gestapo hoped to use her as a bargaining chip.
Peter and Odette survived the war, were released from prison and traveled to England where they eventually married. Because of her heroism during the war, Odette received an award and, in a large ceremony, the George Cross was presented to her by King George VI, the only woman honored along with 249 men.
More well-known than Odette is Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist for female education and the youngest Nobel Prize laureate. She tells her story in “I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban.” Written with the British journalist Christina Lamb, Malala’s life unfolds like the perilous Pakistani terrain she grew up in: unpredictable and full of barriers.
When Malala was born in 1997, she was barely mentioned in her family’s genealogy, because Pakistan reveres males, not females. She lived with her parents and two younger brothers in the war-torn Swat Valley in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Through her eyes, we read about the 1999 military takeover of Pakistan; the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; wars in neighboring Afghanistan; the assassination of Pakistan’s first woman Prime Minister, Benazir Bhutto; and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Under the Taliban dominance of the Swat Valley, Malala saw frenzied extremists destroy the precious Buddhist landmarks of her city. She saw them brainwashing her neighbors and stealing their wages, and she witnessed beheadings.
Malala gained fame — and notoriety — among the strict, anti-Western mullahs for writing an anonymous blog on girls’ education for the BBC, before revealing her identity and campaigning more outspokenly on girl’s rights. (Her love for school was inspired by her father who owned a school and who believed that girls and boys should be educated equally.) The Taliban considered girls going to school — and fighting to do so — a crime, and on Oct. 9, 2012, at pointblank range, Malala was shot in the face on her school bus, the bullet passing her left eye and going into her shoulder. Two of her friends were also hit.
After a shaky recovery in England, Malala turned her tragedy into something positive, getting the world’s attention on the crucial issue of a girl’s right to an education. “I’m one of the few fathers known by his daughter,” Malala’s father says toward the end of the book.
“I am Malala” is the story of a remarkable woman, but it’s also about a stolen childhood, determinedly reclaimed and how to resist evil masquerading as traditions and religion. Malala shows us how to remain human in a de-humanizing world.
- *Laurel Thatcher Ulrich