American Spy is author Lauren Wilkinson’s stunning debut novel: a Cold War thriller with a black woman as the protagonist. Marie Mitchell is a brilliant FBI agent, but she is constantly being turned down for high-profile assignments because of her race and gender. Marie’s father is a black policeman from New York, and her mother is a French-speaking Catholic from Martinique, who passed as white when she was growing up. Both her parents’ backgrounds play important roles in the story. There are three timelines in the book. It begins with the one that is chronologically the latest, in Martinique in 1992, where Marie has to flee with her twin sons after she shoots an intruder in her house. The book is told in the form of a journal that Marie keeps for her sons, which she means them to read when they’re older. The other two timelines relate the events that led to the intruder’s being in her house, and the reader gradually finds out why Marie’s life is in danger, and why she has to leave her sons in the care of her mother in Martinique.
There are flashbacks to Marie’s childhood in New York in the 1960s, which form the book’s second story line. She hero-worships her older sister Helene, who wants to be a spy. This is the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when people were terrified of nuclear war. Marie and her sister grew up thinking of Communism as the enemy, and this plays an important role as we see how Marie’s views change over the years. Her mother abandons her family and goes back to Martinique. Marie resents her mother for that, even though, in 1992, she is about to do the same thing herself. Her reasons for that are revealed throughout the novel. In spite of her mother’s abandonment, Marie always turns to her when she’s in trouble. Marie’s father is a fascinating and complex character. He became a policeman in order to reform the system by working inside it, and Marie often wonders whether she’s doing the same thing. As it turns out, her sister, Helene, dies in mysterious circumstances. Marie’s efforts to learn the truth behind her sister’s death play an important role in her subsequent actions, and she becomes a spy so she can do what her sister always wanted to do.
The main timeline takes place in 1987 in New York and Burkina Faso. Marie is now an agent for the FBI, but she’s been suspended for a minor offense, while her white male bosses have gotten away with much worse. When a CIA officer, Ed Ross, approaches her with an offer of an assignment in Burkina Faso, she accepts, even though she knows she’s been chosen because she’s a black woman. Ross tells her she will be working with Daniel Slater, the man who had been her sister’s boyfriend, and Marie suspects Slater knows what really happened to Helene. It is this opportunity that leads Marie to accept, and go to Burkina Faso. Her assignment is to seduce the president of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara, whom she had met previously when he gave a speech to the United Nations. Sankara, a charismatic leader, is a Communist, which is why the CIA wants to overthrow him. Marie thinks that Ross wants blackmail photos of her in bed with Sankara, in order to discredit him so the U.S. government could replace him with a president of their own choosing.
When she arrives in Burkina Faso and meets with Slater, Marie discovers that the plan is much more complex than she ever imagined. Not only that, but she realizes all the good that Sankara has done for his country: he has improved education, the environment, and transportation, and the people love him. Eventually, she falls in love with Sankara, and she has to make her choice between her assignment and the man she loves. Marie questions her whole system of beliefs, and wonders why she’s working for a government that treats her badly, as a black woman, and which is trying to overthrow Sankara because they don’t agree with his politics. Her choices will put her life in danger, but she will discover what is really important to her, and what is worth fighting for.
American Spy is a brilliant novel, with an intelligent, complex protagonist. You learn about what it is like to be a black woman in a profession dominated by white men. Although the novel takes place in the 1980s, I suspect that, sadly, things have not changed much for black women in the intelligence services. Also, I learned a lot about Burkina Faso, a country I had not known much about before. Wilkinson’s descriptions of the country make you feel like you’re there. She also describes the political situation in detail, without ever sounding like she’s lecturing. Without giving away too much, I have to say that there are important plot lines that remain unresolved, so I wonder if Wilkinson intends to write a sequel. If she does, I am looking forward to reading more about Marie Mitchell. This is an important book to read in these times, and I highly recommend it.
American Spy is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library, the Shapiro Undergraduate Library, and the UM-Flint Main Collection.