The story goes that in 1944, after being dropped by parachute into Nazi-occupied France, Nancy Wake’s parachute became caught in a tree. A member of the local French maquis that greeted her said he wished all trees could bear such beautiful fruit. “Don’t give me that French shit,” was Wake’s reply.
This story isn’t recounted in Wake’s autobiography, THE WHITE MOUSE, but it’s one she liked to tell after the war, and one of my personal favorites because it succinctly gives you an idea of the kind of woman Nancy Wake was. Like I do with so many things history, I first learned about Wake during a deep-dive into Wikipedia’s bloated compendium on World War II. I was reading about the fall of France, and there was a quick mention of a British SOE agent who parachuted into France in 1944 to help lead the maquis groups of the French Resistance. Prior to joining the SOE, Wake served as a courier for the French Resistance. So effective was she at evading capture, the Gestapo called her “the White Mouse.”
I’d been searching for a copy of THE WHITE MOUSE for several years, and recently, finally, found a copy that wasn’t ridiculously expensive. At a hair over 200 pages, Wake’s autobiography is a short, compelling book. The prose is straightforward but engaging, and reads as though Wake were casually telling you her story over drinks. There are numerous asides and anecdotes about the people she knew and worked with, or the insane situations she found herself in — like bicycling several hundred kilometers across France, avoiding Nazi patrols, in 72 hours to get and receive critical messages. The war years take up the bulk of the book and are the most fascinating, but the rest of the book rounds out the story and provides good context on who Wake was and who she became. Her stories about living in Paris before the war are especially vivid, and made me want to go back again.
All in all, Wake’s tale is equal parts witty, grim, and charming. It’s an excellent book by a remarkable woman.
THE WHITE MOUSE, Nancy Wake (Goodreads)