Camp ToB 2019

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Week 10: American Spy

This week, we wrap up our discussion of the first book in our August matchup: Lauren Wilkinson’s American Spy.

Welcome to Camp ToB 2019, the summer reading program from the Tournament of Books! All summer long, we’re reading six works of fiction from 2019—two books per month, two weeks per book—that you chose by popular vote. Each week we read half of one novel, then meet here on Wednesdays, joined in the booth by a member of the Commentariat—our Activity Leaders, in Camp parlance—to discuss our progress through each book. At the end of each month you decide which of the two books we just read advances to our end-of-summer championship, where you make the ultimate call on which of our three finalists wins an automatic berth in the 2020 Tournament of Books.

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Andrew Womack: It’s another week of Camp ToB, and this time around we’re talking about the rest of American Spy, the first book in our August matchup.

In the second half, our story shifts to Burkina Faso, where Marie has been sent by her CIA handler, Ed Ross, to continue her assignment of getting close to President Thomas Sankara as part of a smear campaign in order to help the US meddle in the country’s elections. Once she learns, however, that Ross and his CIA counterpart Daniel Slater’s real intent is to have Marie assassinate Sankara—and that she’s expendable in the operation—she reveals to Sankara that she’s a spy, warns him of the plot, and then flees to Martinique—pregnant, she soon learns, with their two sons. Knowing that Ross was behind the attack on her at the beginning of the book, Marie leaves us as she departs to find Ross, presumably with the intent to kill him.

Our Activity Leader this week is Wendi Royal. To start us off, Wendi, please introduce yourself to the campers!

Wendi Royal: Hey campers! I grew up in Southern California, where I never went to camp. As a kid, I spent summers reading and going to the beach. For more than 30 years, I’ve lived in New York City, and retired about 10 years ago from law and corporate finance. More recently, I’ve been at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, where I saw about six shows a day!

Andrew: Great to have you with us, Wendi. Now let’s get into the second half of American Spy.

Where the first half of the novel sets up all the pieces in the story, I think here in the second half we’re expecting to see a lot of those dominoes fall and have all our burning questions answered. For me, the big one was: What really happened to Helene? I don’t know about you, but I guess I felt like we didn’t find out. She died in a car accident—and that’s it? No apparent foul play? How’d you feel about that?

Wendi: There seems to be a mystery around Helene’s death, but it never pans out. In the first half of the book, Marie comes across her father looking into the circumstances of the accident, but he tells Marie that he has not found anything unusual. Later, Slater explains to Marie that he and Helene got married in Las Vegas right before the accident. Helene was driving, not going particularly fast, when they swerved off the road. Helene, who wasn’t wearing her seatbelt, was killed. Marie is angry that her sister got married without telling her. But she learns nothing sinister about her sister’s death.

Andrew: I felt like a QAnon follower during all of it. Sure, the book keeps telling me there’s no plot behind her death, but I know the truth. And then the book tells me again, nope, nothing here. Sure, book.

Speaking of fiction versus fantasy, something the Commentariat brought up last week was about the book’s believability. I know I bought the narrative hook, line, and sinker—what about you?

Wendi: Anyone using Marie’s spy techniques would not have lasted long as a spy. (I guess she didn’t last long as a spy.) She uses a false identity (Monica Williams) to help the CIA obtain information from Thomas Sankara during his visit to the UN—but she takes him to her actual apartment. That she gets close to him and gets an immediate answer defies credibility.

Next, she is engaged by the CIA to go to Burkina Faso to help bring down Sankara’s regime. Even though she is supposed to be traveling under the false identity, she is able to bring a gun on the plane because of her license as a federal agent. Huh?

In Burkina Faso, she has a new cover job working at a women’s shelter, which the book refers to it as an “American NGO.” An NGO is by definition non-governmental, so “American NGO” seems like a misnomer. Also, Slater heads the Haven for Women—putting Marie so close to an established intelligence agent seems like a bad idea if she is supposed to be undercover. He sends her on errands unrelated to her position with the NGO, including attending an Environmental Conference. Again, she is able to have instant one-on-one contact with Sankara without any security present.


American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson

It’s 1986, the heart of the Cold War, and Marie Mitchell is an intelligence officer with the FBI. She’s brilliant, but she’s also a young black woman working in an old boys’ club. So when she’s given the opportunity to join a shadowy task force aimed at undermining Thomas Sankara, the charismatic revolutionary president of Burkina Faso whose Communist ideology has made him a target for American intervention, she says yes. Yes, even though she secretly admires the work Sankara is doing for his country. Yes, even though she is still grieving the mysterious death of her sister, whose example led Marie to this career path in the first place. (Amazon / IndieBound / Powell’s)

Book description excerpted from publisher’s summary and edited for length.


Andrew: I think you’re touching here on something I’ve wondered about, which is this: At what point does a book’s infractions add up to an overall poor experience for the reader? I think I fell in love with this book so quickly in the first half, and got so sucked in—with the historical context, the tension in the present day and the flashbacks, the inevitability of Sankara’s death—that I didn’t try and pick away at the details of the book too much. For you, how does a book start to lose you as its reader, and when do you think that happened with American Spy?

Wendi: These are all just details. I may have gotten past them if the themes of the book, the characters, and the historical context were developed more fully and richly.

A major theme of the book is blind duty versus moral sense, ends versus means. It is unclear where Marie stands. At first she seems critical of blind duty as she sees her grandfather, father, and others caving to the demands of their bosses. She goes in the opposite direction and breaks rules at work. But she is torn by her desire to do her patriotic duty. She is ready to help to overturn foreign governments and to kill foreign leaders without understanding what is going on. Instead of pursuing these questions, she just ends up acting for revenge—both in shooting Slater (to death?—it’s never clear) and in abandoning her children at the end of the book to go after another intelligence agent, her old handler Ed Ross.

Abandonment is another theme. Marie was abandoned by her mother when she was about 10 years old. We are never given an explanation of why her mother left and went back to Martinique. I think she says that Marie’s father hangs out with snitches; Marie says she carries the hurt of abandonment with her always. But then she does the same thing and leaves her children. Is it for her own desire for revenge against Ed or to keep them all safe?

Marie as a character was a big letdown, too. Marie thinks she knows more than everyone else but to me she came off arrogant and overconfident, and also clueless and naive. Marie didn’t seem to gain maturity or self-awareness during the course of the book.

In the end, Marie seems to abandon both blind duty and moral sense and defines her choices as terrorism (burning American military bases in African countries, as her friend Robbie suggests) or apathy—hoping that her sons are Americans who can make the world a better place.

Andrew: Let’s talk more specifically about Sankara. Toward the end of the first half, I decided to google him, when I discovered, ah look, this is a real person, and ah look at that, he’s going to die. After that, I started looking at the second half more as historical fiction, which gave me an opportunity to learn about things I didn’t know about before, such as the horrific Battle of Kolwezi, which Slater cites to Marie when revealing his plans to start a new intelligence agency. We discussed a bit of the historical fiction angle last week as well, but I feel like we got so much more of it in the second half that I want to know: How did you feel about the way this novel approaches historical fiction?

Wendi: At the beginning of American Spy, we get references to spies, the CIA, Black Panthers, and the Cold War as a pre-shadowing of themes the book is going to address. Then, the story begins to focus on Burkina Faso and Thomas Sankara. I think the book uses Burkina Faso as a convenient stand-in for a tale of spies and CIA involvement. Here’s why: Early on the book mentions Sharon Scranage, a CIA clerk working in Ghana, Burkina Faso’s neighbor. After looking up Scranage, I learned that she was targeted by a Ghanaian intelligence officer. After they began to have a relationship, he convinced her to give him information on the identities of CIA spies. However, from what I can tell, France was at the center of politics and covert operations in Burkina Faso in the 1980s—not the US. I think the book plays a little too fast and loose with the facts and doesn’t go deep enough to give us a greater understanding.

Andrew: I know what you mean. I feel like I came away from the book with more than I arrived with, which I’m happy about—I love when historical fiction educates me, even on a superficial level. What about you, overall and anything you may have gained from American Spy?

Wendi: I hoped that I would come away from the book with new understanding and knowledge. American Spy makes me yearn for books like Miss Burma or Half of a Yellow Sun or Pachinko, where I came away feeling like I gained a real insight into Myanmar, the Nigerian Civil War, or the plight of Korean immigrants in Japan through stories with plots and characters that both moved and enlightened.

For example, I had been to Myanmar in 2009, but didn’t know much more about its history than headlines and soundbites. I knew that Aun Sang Suu Kyi had won the Nobel Peace prize and thought she was supposed to be a democratic choice for a leader. I knew the recent headlines about the killing of ethnic minorities under Aun Sang’s leadership. What I learned by reading Miss Burma was the deep roots of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar and that the champion of this cleansing and atrocities was Aun Sang Suu Kyi’s father. It put what is happening today in a completely different light for me. And this was accomplished through a moving family saga.

I should also mention Black Water Rising by Attica Locke—a mystery/thriller that mixes real people (e.g., Stokely Carmichael), issues of race and real events in a way I didn’t find disappointing.

Andrew: What do you think happens next for Marie and our American Spy cast? We’re left with the sense—I think—that this is ready for a sequel. I know I still have questions about what happened. I want some resolution. How about you?

Wendi: The book is definitely set up for a sequel. What happens when she finds Ed Ross? Was he the one who ordered the hit on her? Do we learn more about what happened to Helene? Is Daniel really dead? Does Marie go back to her children? Do we care?

Andrew: Haha—well, I want to know!

Thank you, Wendi, for joining us this week to discuss this book. Now let’s find out what the Commentariat thought of American Spy’s conclusion.


The Camp ToB 2019 Calendar


The Tournament of Books’ organizers Andrew Womack and Rosecrans Baldwin are TMN’s co-founders. Baldwin’s most recent book is Everything Now, winner of the 2022 California Book Award. For his other books, try More by The Tournament of Books Staff

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