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The Widow Spy and the Amazing (Secret) Connections of Book Club Members

Martha Peterson's network

closeup of a female eye staring from behind flowers
Photo: Oleksandra Bardash on Unsplash

One of the many advantages of belonging to a book club is that I am forced out of my comfort zone and into reading books I never would have chosen for myself.

Let me tell you, I never would have chosen Martha Peterson's The Widow Spy as reading material were it not for an invitation to attend another book club in town where this nonfiction book was going to be discussed. Better yet, The Widow Spy was going to be the springboard for a guest speaker, Kari Amelung, who spent more than thirty years in the CIA, served all over the world, and eventually directed operations in Europe.

I certainly could not resist meeting my first real-life CIA agent - (that I know of!) - and hearing about the lifestyle and the tradecraft involved in being a spy.

The Widow Spy and my inherent cynicism

If you love spy novels and tales of espionage, you'll wonder why I would never voluntarily espionage. Why wouldn't I choose to read books about high-level spy trade? What's wrong with me that I wouldn't naturally gravitate toward Martha Peterson's, The Widow Spy, a true account of the first single, female operative in Moscow?

Forgive me.

I often rolled my eyes at James Bond movies, thinking to myself, "Oh, right. That could REALLY happen." I doubted all the complex plans, the disguises, and the ability of people to implant themselves in a situation and convincingly pretend that they were someone else. I wondered if all those elaborate, often miniaturized gadgets, really existed or whether they were a figment of some science-fiction nerd's brain. I believed that the entertainment industry had created an alternative reality of what REALLY happens in international spycraft.

Yes, I've read many Baldacci novels, and I love Gabriel Allon, Daniel Silva's art restorer/detective. I enjoy a good spy story. My husband and I watched the entire Alias series with Jennifer Garner and the wild Nakita series, both with beautiful, stealthy, intelligent female agents dealing with global intrigue.

But in my head, ALL of that was pure fiction.

Turns out, I was being both oblivious to the truth and stupidly obtuse.

"Spies" are around us everywhere. In every country. Of every nationality. In every era of humanity. Their job is to gather information so that each nation can make decisions that will best protect their land and their population.

The Widow Spy: a CIA agent's life

Martha Peterson was a young, newly married bride who went with her CIA-employed husband to Laos. After he is killed, Peterson decides to honor his memory and his contribution by becoming an agent herself, a not-so-easy task for a male-dominated industry that thought women weren't tough enough to wander the streets of a foreign country alone.

The Widow Spy documents Peterson's early career in Moscow during the Cold War and her noteworthy triumphs and trials in handling document drops and interchanges with a very high-level Soviet man who was spying for the United States. His code name was Trigon.

Never again will I flippantly dismiss all the gadgets, planning, disguises, and spycraft portrayed in movies as being fiction.

Miniature cameras. Months of planning for a single exchange of information. Special signals. Payment for top-secret documents. All of those things happen in real life and were part and parcel of Martha Peterson's experience.

Read the book to find out what happened to Peterson and Trigon and be immersed in the Cold War with Russia. (Literally, too. Peterson talks about the temperatures often falling to 20 degrees below, just one more reason that I could never be a spy. I couldn't stand the cold!)

I may not have originally chosen that book to read on my own, but I am so glad I was exposed to what working as a CIA agent really entailed.

Never would I have understood the "clear and present danger" that working as a CIA agent posed every minute of every day had I not read The Widow Spy and known it to be a true account.

Martha Peterson's extended network

Who could have guessed that Martha Peterson's extended network reached all the way to my quotidian existence in a quiet Midwestern town?

A former colleague at the community college where I taught had a daughter who became a CIA agent. I didn't know this woman well, but I heard that she would never talk much about her daughter and would be elusive about who her daughter worked for, what she did, and where she was on any given day.

Turns out that my colleague's daughter is now a retired CIA agent who was friends with "Marty," Martha Peterson.

Kari Amelung went into the CIA immediately after college. She served in three war zones, traveled all over the world, and rose to a position of leadership in Europe before retiring after a thirty-three-year career. Amelung now consults with television and movie studios producing "spy" shows.

The Truth of the Matter

I've heard it said that

“In the world of espionage, the stakes are always high.”

Listening to Kari's discussion of what life in the CIA entailed, I began to understand the huge commitment of people who chose to serve there. They are intelligent, motivated, and definitely aren't afraid of adventure and danger.

The difficulty of having any kind of personal life became clear when reading The Widow Spy and listening to Kari's account of the things she COULD tell us. Like the fact that when she met her husband-to-be, an employee of WorldBank, she couldn't tell him what she did for a living. Or that he had to take a lie detector test to ensure that he was not a spy before she got permission to marry him. Or the fact that, at times, she was called away for months, or even once for an entire year, to serve her country.

She attested to the fact that the job of the CIA is to gather information. It doesn't matter what political party is in charge, the CIA's job is to find out what is really going on anywhere in the world. She knew of situations where an informant was taking money from two opposing sides, "double-dipping" for cash rewards. At one time, Amelung was jailed. Of course, her mother didn't even know about it!

I was wrong.

Those spy movies and television series are based on what really happens in the world of spies!


I am thankful that a friend invited me to be a guest of this other book club.

I am appreciative of this dedicated, brave woman who traveled to her hometown and spent time talking to an enthralled audience, allowing us small glimpses into a the "covert" organization I knew little of.

Mostly, though, I am grateful for the service CIA agents give without ever expecting acknowledgment or fame for what they do. Every day, CIA agents and staff are taking risks to make us safer, a fact I really hadn't thought about before reading The Widow Spy.

In her prologue, Martha Peterson acknowledges that the work CIA agents do is invisible to those outside of the agency. She urges each of those agents to reward their accomplishments nonetheless:

"Finally, to those who continue the work of the CIA in dangerous and unpredictable places: Celebrate our victories, no matter how silently."

I celebrate them now, and I don't have to be silent about it!


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