- What: American Spy
- Who: Lauren Wilkinson
- Pages: 289, soft cover
- Genres: Historical fiction and thriller
- Published: 2019
- The lit: of 5 flames
In college, I took a class on Ronald Reagan. I loved history, and because I was simultaneously taking my dreadfully exhausting capstone, I was trying to limit the amount of time I actual went to and from and sat in physical classes. So I signed up for online classes, as well as one dedicated to the former president that met every Wednesday evening for three hours. (We closed the magazine issue on Wednesday mornings, so yes, yes I slept through most of this class. Still managed to get that A though!)
My professor promised on day one that we would never be able to guess his political leanings, and he was right. Major props to him even if I slept through his lectures. I actually did learn a lot in that class and enjoyed the reading and studying for the exams (you can’t actually be surprised by that statement). He taught me one thing in particular that I’ll never forget and that I’m continuously reminded of in 2020 and with the most recent book I read, American Spy: The main difference between Republicans and Democrats is that the former believes America is the Beacon on the Hill, and the latter does not. Talk about a watershed moment for yours truly.
This moment has replayed itself many times for me in 2020, including when I recently watched an AJ+ video about American exceptionalism (thanks for the rec, Rachel Cargle). And then the next week, I started American Spy, which zeroes in on this exact topic. This is basically a longwinded way of me saying that unfortunately American exceptionalism is stronger than ever, and it’s been on my mind constantly. I’ve witnessed way too much backlash proclaiming this country doesn’t need to change and that it is the best place on Earth.
I’m sure I will lose some readers when I say that it is in fact not the best place on Earth and that there is room to improve.
That’s not to say you can’t love America while simultaneously wishing for change. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you read American Spy. The main character is the perfect character study in having doubts about your country but being an active participant to catalyze change. Thankfully, there are a plethora of authors who have chosen to use their incredible stories as teaching moments for this topic. I can only hope that one day America’s ego will somewhat deflate.
After nearly being attacked in her own home (yep, that happens on page one), Marie Mitchell flees to another country to protect her young sons and to plot how she will forever protect them. She knows this will not be the last threat. Before doing so, she writes them a letter so they can understand her past and understand the experiences that led them to this moment of terror. That letter — that very, very long letter — is the majority of American Spy.
Marie grew up in New York with her older sister who she admired even if she had a slight temper. But her family life was rocked when her mother left her policeman dad and moved back to Martinique when Marie was a young girl. These experiences and their aftermath led Marie and her sister to dream of becoming spies and enforcing change. Unfortunately, only Marie would live out that dream when she becomes an FBI agent in the middle of the Cold War.
Racism and sexism prevent her from meaningful assignments though. While struggling with the reality of a stalled and prejudiced career, she also battles her own morals and beliefs, which directly contrast with the FBI and its racially motivated missions and belief in American intervention. That same weariness and skepticism surface when an incomprehensible CIA agent picks her to infiltrate Thomas Sankara, the revolutionary president of Burkina Faso and who the U.S. is trying to overthrow.
She takes the job despite her reservations but finds she actually respects Sankara and his beliefs, as well as his human spirit. Marie soon falls for Sankara and must decide if she can fulfill her espionage mission or if she should protect this man she respects and has come to love. The novel asks what’s more important: loyalty to country and career or loyalty to love and yourself?
The best things about this book really have nothing to do with the “spy” aspects of it, which in my mind were few and unfulfilling (more on that soon). The novel’s summary says that it’s an “enthralling espionage drama,” but I’d say it’s more personal drama and historical fiction than spy. That’s not a complaint.
I was fascinated by the historical features. I found myself researching Thomas Sankara and wanting to know more about his life and America’s interference in his country. Author Lauren Wilkinson does a great job of weaving in that idea of American exceptionalism and how it opposes the beliefs of many Americans, especially specific groups — the ones who have forever been thought of as less than and seen as “other” in this country. They know and have experienced America’s flaws firsthand.
Growing up Black in America and during the 60s and 70s, Marie witnesses civil unrest and police brutality against her people, which hasn’t changed a half a century later. She witnesses the shock of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. She witnesses unfair intervention against Black groups, such as the Black Panthers. And as an FBI agent, she witnesses her country’s international intervention and her own employer exploit poorer, African countries to hold influence over their people. All of these experiences mold who she becomes and what she believes — even into the type of agent who doesn’t believe in her employer’s bluster and who doesn’t fall into the trap of American exceptionalism.
Marie is a character study in this theme, one that boldly tells a different American narrative. It’s a theme that challenges the belief that the “American” way of life is always best and should never be questioned. This theme, the powerful characterization of Marie, and everything she represents elevate this book to four flames.
But let’s talk about her espionage.
I wish Marie’s experiences as an agent could have been explored more. Not that I wanted more espionage for the sake of drama and suspense. But it’s a pretty short novel, and her time with Sankara feels very rushed. I needed a better understanding of her relationship with him, so that I could better comprehend her mission, as well as the impact of America’s intervention in Burkina Faso.
She seems to fall for Sankara way too fast; it doesn’t appear as a fast and furious lust but more as a deep and respectful love, which Wilkinson doesn’t dedicate enough time to develop. In the same vein, Marie’s time in Burkina Faso doesn’t even seem like a spy mission, which leads me to question the research that went into the book. This part of the book is just too rushed. If Wilkinson had given more time to character interactions, the plot, and foreshadowing, I could have better interpreted these relationships and experiences, as well as the cultural and historical contexts. So yes, this novel has some structural flaws.
You definitely know my friend Dana by now, and we chatted about these flaws after I finished American Spy, which she originally recommended to me last year. As always, Dana had some profound statements to make.
“It takes more skill to write a good short book,” she said.
Wow, talk about another watershed moment.
See, we have a shared skepticism and often dislike for long books. A great writer should be able to cut down a book to something more consumable. Plus, what are you trying to prove with your 1,000 pages? In contrast, we both feel American Spy, though intriguing, important, and enjoyable — so much so that it deserves four flames — lacks some context and ends far too quickly.
This novel was on Barack Obama’s 2019 summer reading list and for good reason. I too recommend reading it for all the powerful statements it professes about being a minority in this country and about American exceptionalism. That doesn’t change the fact that I wanted and needed more from this book. Maybe Wilkinson will give us a sequel and answer all of my questions.