American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz takes a look at the large scale culture of violence in Chicago over one summer, 2013, as well as the effect of violence in the lives of specific people and families.
Kotlowitz puts his stories from this summer in the context of ongoing debates about gun violence in the U.S.:
“After the massacre at Newtown and then at Parkland we asked all the right questions. How could this happen? What would bring a young man to commit such an atrocity? How can we limit access to guns? How do the families and the community continue on while carrying the full weight of this tragedy? But in Chicago neighborhoods like Englewood and North Lawndale, where in one year they lose twice the number of people killed in Newtown, no one’s asking those questions. I don’t mean to suggest that one is more tragic than the other, but rather to point out that the national grieving and questioning don’t extend to corners of this country where such carnage has become almost routine. It’s in these, the most ravaged of our communities, among the most desperate and forlorn, that we can come to understand the makings of who we are as a nation, a country marked by the paradox of holding such generosity by such neglect” (7)
Although I found his writing cogent, clear, and moving, I had a hard time keeping my interest from chapter to chapter. I did not get really caught up in the overall narrative of the summer. Rather, I found a handful of the chapters particularly effective. “The Tightrope, a story in four parts” tells the story of, Marcelo a high school student and survivor of a shooting, who is headed for a successful future until he gets caught up with a string of robberies with his best friend and member of his former gang. The four chapters about Marcello follow his journey through the court system as he fights to get his bright future back. “Father’s Day” focuses on Mike and his adopted son Victor. Mike adopts Victor out of a terrible group home and tries to give him a chance at a future, but the issues Victor has from has past lead him back to trouble. The chapter explores how Mike and Victor each struggle with their own identity issues and secrets, falling apart and then finding each other again. In “The (Annotated) Eulogy,” Kotlowitz tells the story of the relationship between Erin and Robert through annotations to the eulogy Erin delivers at Robert’s funeral. The formatting creates a quick and moving portrait of a couple pulled apart by violence, gangs, and the allure of quick money. Finally, the very moving chapters that tell the story of “The Witnesses” dramatize the high costs for those who cooperate with the police. After Ramaine is shot, he identifies his shooter and for years afterward, he is harassed and threatened by members of the shooter’s gang. The story also details the emotional effects on Ramaine’s girlfriend, Kaprice, and little brother, Nijujan. The story is tragic and a compelling case study for the hidden costs of trying to do something about this violence.
I had checked out American Summer thinking that it was a true crime title. Although you could technically put this book in that category, it is more serious journalism and sociological work than it is true crime at its heart. Not everyone will find this book terribly interesting, but the stories it contains and the points it makes about gun violence and which victims really matter in our media are important and well-written.