As an outsider to government secrets, one can only dream that the novel technology in “Mission: Impossible” and stealth tactics in “The Bourne Identity” have been invented in the real world. However, coded messages, microdot cameras, and double agents are just some of the fascinating aspects of U.S. government intelligence uncovered in Nathalia Holt’s “Wise Gals.”
Unlike many popular films, Holt’s fourth novel centers on women involved in the CIA, jumping leaps and bounds beyond any spy movie franchise. “Wise Gals” tells the story of five real women — Jane Burrell, Adelaide Hawkins, Mary Hutchison, Eloise Page and Elizabeth Sudmeier — who each played a fundamental role in directing the CIA into its modern line of intelligence.
One of the most exciting elements of the novel is the feeling that readers are gaining access to government secrets. Unlike the objective voice of the typical history textbook, “Wise Gals” makes readers live and breathe in moments of the past. Readers hold their bated breath while waiting to see if the USSR will strike from Cuba and fidget in their seats while thinking about whether the vital covert operations occurring in the Middle East will be uncovered. Using maps, the author helps readers triangulate where the key women are, allowing for a better contextualization of the story.
Inevitably, the uncovering of government secrets instigates the question of truth in the present moment. While learning about covert operations to overthrow governments, readers must consider if everything they read and see on the news day-to-day is the whole truth. These internal considerations add new depths to the novel, making history feel relevant in the present moment.
Breaking through the tension, Holt’s witty humor and quick jabs at the “male, pale, and Yale” organization give necessary breaks in the midst of high stress moments. Through reliving history, the novel gives viewers a glimpse into the Post World War II era that defined America’s powerful presence in the modern day.
Rather than focus on one character at a time, the novel relies on a linear timeline so that readers can understand the significance of each smaller development in the context of the bigger picture. Furthermore, Holt incorporates various images of clandestine technology, honors awarded to the Wise Gals, and the women’s personal lives collected from archives into the novel as a way to ground readers’ imaginations.
Through these stories, readers learn more about how women were vital to the development of U.S. strategy during a precarious time period. For instance, had it not been for Sudmeier’s ability to spectacularly blend into the Baghdad community and foster strong connections with the military wives, the CIA would not have uncovered enough intelligence about the Soviet plans for expansion. The novel also sheds light on the bureaucratic hurdles these women faced in taking on leadership roles and fighting for the rights of other women.
However, in its attempts to be defined as a feminist novel, “Wise Gals” does not pass the test. The novel does not have a primary focus on uplifting women in relation to each other, instead centering on the women’s individual accomplishments. Eschewing opportunities to learn more about the Petticoat Panel and how the “wise gals” may have been able to impact and uplift each other, Holt chooses to focus on moments of generational clash and the difficulties of fitting in.
Furthermore, some of the accomplishments become marred by the manner in which they were achieved, creating a double-edged sword. Sudmeier’s noteworthy contributions in Baghdad were precluded by the fact that, as a woman, she could form networks in a hair salon and a dressmaker’s shop. While groundbreaking in itself that a woman could attain intelligence that no man could, it becomes disheartening when Holt’s focus in the retelling of the success reinforces feminine stereotypes. Rather, a more effective approach would have explicated Sudmeier’s stealth infiltration tactics.
Ultimately, “Wise Gals” is a compelling read about covert government history and the overlooked contributions of women to the CIA. While the women may not have been able to support each other, these gals wisely made their way to the top of their respective fields, inspiring groundbreaking progress in U.S. secret intelligence.