In Alex Kotlowitz’s An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago, the writer builds on what he began with his 1991 book, There Are No Children Here, which is a modern classic, selected by the New York Public Library as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century. There Are No Children Here is a seminal look at poverty and inequality based on two brothers living in the Henry Horner Homes, a housing project in Chicago that was mostly demolished in the 1990s.
An American Summer takes place in a vastly different political, economic, and racial context than when Kotlowitz’s documentation began. We speak, for example, soon after the one-year anniversary of the horrific Parkland, Florida, shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in which 17 Americans were killed.
The subsequent stories of the mass shooting were focused on themes as unfortunately common as mass shootings themselves: Who was the perpetrator? Who were/are the victims? What can we do to actually cut off the availability of guns to those who would perpetuate this kind of heartache again and again?
But Kotlowitz, now a professor at Northwestern University, wrote An American Summer to ask different questions and to expand the lens through which we look at gun violence to include more Americans: largely poor and black Americans.
“How do you manage to go on?” Kotlowitz asks. “How do you manage to not let [gun violence] shape that community? We don’t ask those questions of people in these communities. The title is very purposeful. People tend to put this incredible distance between them and us, and I just wanted people to recognize that this is not some distant land. It’s the great American paradox. We like to think that we’re all on this ship heading in the same direction, and yet we lead incredibly disconnected lives.”
There are several narratives of lives fractured forever by gun violence in An American Summer, including four young people that have been killed that Kotlowitz knew from writing his first book.
Ramaine Hill, a former resident of the Cabrini-Green projects, is a witness whose testimony haunts him in devastating ways that are, ultimately, unresolved; Eddie Bocanegra offers red and white roses to his victim’s loved ones every July 17, the anniversary of the murder he is trying to forgive himself for. “I felt that one narrative wouldn’t capture the depth of what was going on,” Kotlowitz says. Some stories he knew he would write about; others were mostly “stories that knocked me off balance, taught me something I didn’t know before. This is a hard book because I’m asking people to revisit what for many people was the most difficult moment in their lives.”
The effect of this is that Kotlowitz expands the lens of how we think of the impact of gun violence. He depicts the ways that it can wreak havoc on not just individual survivors and families, but purveyors of violence, too. “I think we’ve completely underestimated the impact of violence on communities and their spirits. They’ve been traumatized by the violence,” he says. “You walk out of a building in Englewood on the South Side [and] you see this beautiful glistening skyline and you know it’s not yours. How can you become anything but resentful? In this book, I really wanted people to reflect on the fact that this is not a foreign country; this is our nation.”
The intimacy and empathetic storytelling—augmented by moments of surprising beauty, like a statement Lisa Daniels gives in court asking for forgiveness for the man who fatally shot her son or letters between an imprisoned young man named Aries and a young woman named Ashara, an old crush—are both haunting and deeply spiritual, knitting together seamlessly stories that move somewhat erratically across time.
“Writing [There Are No Children Here] I felt this deep sense of shame. How could I not know about this and we live in the most prosperous country in the world?” Kotlowitz says. “It’s sobering to see how much hasn’t changed.”
Joshunda Sanders is a writer and educator living in New York City.