In the past year, I have been trying to expand my taste in books to different genres. I have not read a lot of historical fiction recently, but the synopsis caught my attention. What I found was a story that not only entertained me, but encouraged me to find out more information about a topic I most likely would not have searched for otherwise.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson is the story of Marie Mitchell, a federal agent who is bored with her inability to move up in her career. In 1987, she is recruited to go undercover to obtain information from Burkina Faso president, Thomas Sankara. The United States has labeled him a communist and wants to remove him from power. Marie suspects that she has not been offered this job because of her stellar abilities, but accepts anyway. Her involvement in this mission will make her question what she knows and believes in.
Marie is writing a letter to her sons. While the novel feels like first person most of the time, she refers to her children with “you” at different times and it takes you to second-person point of view. This story really did read like a personal letter. There was a fairly even balance between dialogue and description. The overall tone of the story was very direct and it fits Marie’s character. You can see this in her conversations and mannerisms. She is a very careful person who is perceptive and quickly assesses her environment and the people she comes across. She also doesn’t have idle conversations. Even when she seems to make small talk, she’s being observant and picking up on subtle cues most people may not think of when they are in the moment.
This novel also made me realize how little I know about politics in African countries. This isn’t a topic I learned about in school and I don’t often come across it in my daily life. I didn’t know anything about Burkina Faso prior to reading this novel. I still don’t know a lot about the country, but I was interested in which parts of the story were fact or fiction. Wilkinson chose to set this novel around the election period in Burkina Faso. This explains the urgency for Marie to complete her mission quickly as it would be an ideal time to get someone new in office at the beginning of the presidential term.
Ultimately, I did like this novel and will read it again. I really liked Marie’s character and thought she had a strong sense of her own moral compass. She didn’t let other people tell her what to think and chose to gather information to come to her own conclusions.
Spoiler Alert- The discussion section below contains a lot of spoilers as this is the part of my review where I discuss specific points of the plot with detail and quotes. Continue scrolling at your discretion.
This section is where I go more in depth with three parts of the story I really enjoyed or found particularly interesting. While a lot of points or people caught my attention, I decided to focus on just these three parts.
Throughout the book, the agents kept telling Marie that Thomas Sankara was a dangerous communist and that he should not be in charge. However, Marie was captivated by his presence and his politics from the beginning. He talked about cutting the government spending on the travel and cars of officials to have more funding for initiatives to help the people, such as improvements in infrastructure and vaccines for children. The conversations he had with Marie were not shallow small talk, but curiosity about what she thinks about politics and how he felt about how the world perceived his efforts.
Her romance with him was not a typical novel romance. They don’t really meet up all the time and it’s not some torrid affair. There was obviously an attraction between them, but Sankara was not purposefully trying to take the relationship to that level. He would move her hand from his arm and pull away when she wanted to kiss him. He enjoyed talking to her, but their moments were very brief. While Marie was left breathless after these moments, I didn’t get that impression from Sankara. I really wondered if this honey trap would work because he seemed to pick up on it very quickly.
Out of curiosity, I looked up Thomas Sankara and have included a couple of links to an article and video below if you want to learn more about him.
- Remembering Thomas Sankara on the 30th anniversary of his assassination | Pambazuka News
- Faces of Africa- Sankara’s Ghost
He was smiling as he came down the stage stairs, and as he closed the distance between us, I stared at him, captivated, clapping, pleasure radiating in and out of me in overwhelming waves as applause crashed around us.Page 140
Marie and her sister, Helene, were close as children before becoming distant after Helene joined the military. Although Marie has her main mission, part of the reason she took the mission is because she wanted to find more information about her sister from Daniel Slater. She hoped to talk to him and find out what was going on with Helene during the time they were not on speaking terms. From Marie’s memories, Helene was a very loving and protective older sister. Helene had expressed her interest in becoming a spy as a child, which led her to enlist. Helene’s unfulfilled desire, influenced Marie to become an agent herself. I found myself drawn to this subplot because it added more suspense to the story.
Helene was the only genuine nonconformist I knew, and through example she taught me to look for that in the people I chose to love and respect.Page 72
One of the reasons Marie took the assignment was because she wanted to get information from Daniel Slater, who was a friend of Helene’s she had met years prior. I was not sure what to think of him when Marie found out he’d recommended her for the job. Marie had not been an agent at the time of Helene’s death, so I was not sure what would make him think she’d be right for the job. When they met again, he kept talking about how alike Marie and Helene are and it creeped me out! They way he said it didn’t make me think they were heartfelt statements. It was as if every time he looked at Marie, he only saw her sister. Of course, Marie had her own suspicions about him and kept her guard up.
I wasn’t as insistent as he was that we were alike- not just looked alike. But I liked thinking of her saying that, even if I didn’t know if I believed it was true.page 209
Wilkinson chose to set this historical fiction in a time and place that is different from other novels I’ve read in the genre and I’m curious to see what she writes next. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know what you thought about this story!
Like you, I know very little about Burkina Faso. This story seems to have very many layers to it. It sounds like a very interesting read.