Snow Days and Spies by Nancy Mugele

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Winter Break was extended for me by the bomb cyclone that left the Chester River looking like frozen Arctic tundra. I used the extra days to continue my trek through the mountain of books waiting patiently on my coffee table. Curled up in my favorite spot on the couch with a warm blanket, hot tea sweetened with Lockbriar Farms honey, and a roaring fire, is the perfect staycation for me – especially when it is unplanned.

Snow days, for those of us in the education world, are a gift. A gift of time, welcomed and celebrated, in our often busy and over-scheduled lives. Snow days that glide into weekends are an even bigger gift! And, while I know from personal experience that it is never easy for working parents to juggle unexpected school closings, it is always best to err on the side of safety especially given the large geographic area that Kent County and Queen Anne’s County cover.

Some of you may know that I secretly wanted to be Nancy Drew, but in some of my dreams I was a spy in France. My acting experience and my long neglected proficiency in French would have helped me in this endeavor. I almost majored in French in college, with a planned career at the United Nations, but that is another story.

I spent my snow days immersed in an historical novel – The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. The story brings together two women—a female spy recruited to the real-life Alice Network in France during World War I and an American college student searching for her cousin in Europe in 1947—in a fictional account of courage, perseverance, revenge and personal discovery.

Louise de Bettignies (Lili in the novel) was a real French secret agent who spied on the Germans for the British during World War I using the pseudonym Alice Dubois. She was the leader of a group of spies (including many women) who provided important information to the British through occupied Belgium and the Netherlands. The “Alice” network is estimated to have saved the lives of more than a thousand British soldiers. Louise was so effective she was nicknamed “the queen of spies.” Jenna, who also enjoys historical fiction, is reading The Alice Network as we speak. I cannot wait for our mother-daughter book club discussion.

During World War II, “the most dangerous of all Allied spies” according to the Germans was American Virginia Hall. Hall is someone I feel like I know as I have written about her and given interviews about her for two books and a tv news report. Virginia Hall was a 1926 graduate of Roland Park Country School (my previous school in Baltimore). She worked with the British Special Operations Executive and later with the American Office of Strategic Services and the Special Activities Division of the Central Intelligence Agency. She was known by many aliases, each with a different persona.  I like to believe that she honed her acting skills at RPCS where she participated in theater in Upper School. I admire Virginia Hall’s gift for languages – she was fluent in five – and her intelligence. Unfortunately, her hopes of joining the Foreign Service were ended by a hunting accident that left her with an artificial leg. Resilient and very athletic from her days playing basketball at RPCS, she worked for British intelligence in France after the Nazis invaded and was also dubbed by the Germans as “the lady who limps.”

You can read about her in The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy by Judith L. Pearson. Actor Daisy Ridley (of recent Star Wars fame) will play Virginia Hall in an adaptation of Sonia Purnell’s forthcoming biography A Woman of No Importance. The book is scheduled for publication in spring 2019 but Paramount Pictures has already acquired the rights. I don’t think there is a director yet but I look forward to this film so Virginia’s story will become known to a wider audience.

I salute the amazing and daring women throughout history who have made a significant contribution to our freedom, especially  Virginia and “Alice.” They are truly role models and they continue to inspire me.

Nancy Mugele is the Head of School at Kent School in Chestertown and a member of the Board of Horizons of Kent and Queen Anne’s.

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