31 | An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz

Gun violence is a tricky subject– highly politicized, I feel like I hardly understand what it is like to be caught in the crossfire when you’re from a community that it plagues. When I saw this book on my local library’s audiobook selection, I was excited. Published in 2019, Kotlowitz uses an ethnographic approach to examine what life is like for a handful of people in Chicago and how their lives are shaped by gun violence. He had clearly built rapport with the main cast featured in the book, sharing their deepest fears and anxieties about what lies ahead for them. With ethnographies that deal with sticky issues, I always worry the text may feel leech-like and inappropriate, but I really respect the way Kotlowitz was able to approach the topic in a depoliticized way, not pretending to know what the magic cure is to gun violence.

One of the stories that stayed with me after reading the book was that of a young woman who grew up in the inner city. She recalled having a best friend who was a boy and a crush on her best friend’s friend from another school. As she grew up and went to high school, the boys around her began getting into serious trouble, getting shot, going to jail, and some even getting killed. They hardened and became criminals, no longer innocent kids. Her childhood best friend ended up getting pregnant at 16 and he eventually went to prison for participating in a murder attempt. As soon as she could, she left Chicago, knowing in her heart she could not stay and that the street would catch up to her. She went to college, got a job, and tried to sever the emotional ties to Chicago, distancing herself emotionally and mentally. She catches word that her childhood crush is killed in a gang shooting and tries to reconcile her upbring and where she is in that moment, college-educated and out of the nightmarish city she grew up in. It is such a tragic vignette of her life, I don’t know how she is strong enough to pick herself up and continue on.

I highly recommend this book and note to my future self, would/should read this again. It’s highly relevant and most of us are in a privileged enough position to learn as much as we can on the topic. I did not feel like this ethnography was voyeuristic or problematic in anyway; though it is obviously very unsettling content, it is important to learn how others experience life, dictated by the fear of and also status quo of gun violence.

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