Book Review – Nancy Wake: A Biography Of Our Greatest War Heroine by Peter FitzSimons

Title: Nancy Wake: A Biography Of Our Greatest War Heroine
Author: Peter FitzSimons
Format: Paperback
Written & Published: 2001

Nancy Wake was an Australian who was highly decorated by several countries for her efforts during the Second World War. This biography covers her life from birth to 10 years prior to her death at 98 years of age. It paints a stunning picture of a woman too stubborn to give up, who used every resource she had at her disposal to leave the world a better place than she found it. The biography is based heavily on interviews with Nancy and those friends who were still alive to share their memories.

To read this book is to truly see the meaning of determination. Nancy’s personality is clear on every page, and her decision making process is obvious. The biographer is compassionate in his telling of her life, while also managing to maintain a sense of balance with current ideals about what is and is not acceptable.

At first Nancy was nothing more than a young woman living a dazzling life of parties and alcohol, and by the end of it she was a hardened veteran who had killed a man with her bare hands. Her evolution is born of a natural disgust at what was happening in the world and a simple promise to make that evil stop. She held the lives of thousands of men in her hands, and every day that she was on the field directly impacted the capacity of the German war machine.

There are passages within this book that leave me asking questions about myself. Would I have the courage to do what Nancy did? She rode 400km on a bike over mountains that were heavily patrolled by Germans, and she did it in 72 hours with only 5 hours of sleep. She jumped from a moving train through the window while Germans fired on her in the darkness. She calmly called the bluff of a man who had planned to seduce, rob and kill her after she tried to help him. These incidents would be harrowing for anyone else, but for Nancy they were just another moment where she had to act fast.

This biography also covers what it was like to go from being a decorated heroine to being just another secretary in an office or serving coffee to wealthy travellers. The sense of change is dramatic, along with an awareness that while she and the world had both changed, they had not changed for a harmonious fit. There was a struggle to fit in anywhere, to find meaning after such a dramatic experience.

While Nancy’s story is gripping and a true page-turner, there is a strange quality to the text that continually ejected me from the narrative. It is almost as if Nancy’s voice and the biographer’s voice have tried to merge unsuccessfully into a united whole. The text is consistent in its style and, despite being comfortable with the slang used, at times it felt painfully forced. Readers who are unfamiliar with the Australian vernacular will struggle. I give this book 4 out of 5 pages.

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