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Vehicles on a Burkina Faso street. Photo by Willie Schumann/EyeEm via Getty Images.

Discussion questions for ‘American Spy’

Our June 2020 pick for the PBS NewsHour-New York Times book club is Lauren Wilkinson’s “American Spy.” Become a member of the Now Read This book club by joining our Facebook group, or by signing up to our newsletter. Learn more about the book club here.

Below are questions to help guide your discussions as you read the book over the next month. You can also submit your own questions for Lauren Wilkinson on our Google form. Wilkinson will answer reader questions about “American Spy” on the PBS NewsHour at the end of the month.

WARNING: Spoiler alert on questions further down

  1. What did you think of the style in which Wilkinson wrote the book, as a letter to Marie’s sons?
  2. What challenges does Marie face as a black woman in the FBI?
  3. “We hold women to an unfair double standard,” Marie is told by Ed Ross when being recruited for a mission abroad. Why does it frustrate her to hear it coming from him?
  4. Wilkinson writes that Marie’s mother “passed” as a white woman, while her father was a visible leader in the black community. How does this affect Marie’s own perspective on race and identity?
  5. Early in the book, Marie writes of her FBI colleagues: “[U]nlike me, they weren’t people who’d had their existence politicized on their behalf.” How does this resonate for you amid conversations about race in the U.S. taking place today? What do you make of her depiction of U.S. race relations?
  6. Marie speaks about the effect of “Cold War terror” on the psychology of her generation. How does growing up during this period affect her career choices?
  7. “One thing I can say for sure is that I don’t want you to be moral absolutists,” Marie writes to her sons. Does her approach to morality change throughout the novel?
  8. How much is Marie’s decision to go to Burkina Faso driven by the loss of her sister, Helene?
  9. How do Marie’s feelings about her mission change after she learns from Daniel Slater that she is not, in fact, working for the CIA?
  10. What did you think of Marie’s interest in Thomas Sankara’s socialist ideology? Did his politics play a role in her attraction to him?
  11. Do you find Marie patriotic?
  12. What elements of the plot surprised you the most? What questions remained at the end?
  13. How did this novel compare with other depictions of the Cold War-era that you’ve read or watched?
  14. What ideas or stereotypes about the CIA and FBI does Wilkinson challenge in her book?
  15. Does Wilkinson’s book subvert the typical spy thriller genre? If so, how?
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