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Nancy Wake

an-wake-portaitIn 1994, Nancy Wake auctioned off her war medals for profit. Some said this was to pay for booze, others suggested it was part of a feud with the Museum of Australia, but one friend and neighbor offered an explanation which I choose to believe is most accurate: she did it because someone told her she couldn’t.

As Sackville’s XO cleverly deduced in Fray, telling Nancy Wake not to do something was a sure way to motivate her to do it –– and to beat you at it. That was the story of her life… because, if you weren’t aware, Nancy Wake was real.

A stubborn and decorated Australian veteran of the French Resistance and the British Special Operations Executive in the Second World War, she spent years in France killing the enemy and helping people escape. Her service seemed unusual to everyone but her –– later, she’d explain it thus:

“I don’t see why we women should just wave our men a proud goodbye and then knit them balaclavas.”

At the start of the war she was married to a wealthy Frenchman; by the end the Nazis had executed him, and dubbed her the White Mouse. When the Nazis gave an enemy spy a nickname, you know that person made an impression.

Nancy sure did…

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Because it was the (real) 1940s, being a woman allowed Nancy to move in occupied territory more easily than any of her male counterparts, and also made it quite shocking when she killed German guards –– even ordered the execution of a female German spy –– without losing sleep.

After the war, she reportedly complained that dramatizations of her life (mainly made-for-TV productions) usually tried to turn her wartime experiences into a romantic melodrama. In reality, she didn’t spend the war swooning; she did her job well, and that was the story that she thought needed to be told.

I couldn’t agree more, though it’s for historians to tell her true story properly. I can only tell the fictional alternate-history version, in which she joined Stephanie Shylock’s first class of female officer candidates in 1942, and ended up being one of the star graduates.

I hope the real Nancy would like the idea of being partnered with Elspeth Cornish –– the common-raised Champion of London and the fearless Australian officer are a good team, which is why I was glad they were at the center of Fray. I imagine she’d also enjoy trading barbs with a sarcastic five-year-old dragon, and that she’d distinguish herself when fighting savages on another planet.

And like the other historical figures I’ve abducted into this series –– legless Group Captain Douglas Bader comes to mind –– Nancy was such a big character in real life that she fits naturally into a sci-fi story. As always, I’ve done my best to represent her properly (I never include a historic character who I’d seek to insult), and these books certainly benefit from her presence.

Hopefully, having Nancy in action with Alex, Stephanie, and Strong will encourage readers to learn more about her incomparable real life. If you’re interested, you can start with this ABC News profile, aired after her death at age 98, in 2011. It explains, among other things, how she spent her final years living in her favorite London hotel (and its pub), with her stay largely subsidized by the Prince of Wales:

Because, obviously, Nancy Wake will drink wherever the hell she feels like… and if a prince won’t pay the bill, he’s not worthy of a crown.

Cheers, Nancy. We all owe you a lot.

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