An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago Takes Readers on a Pathway to Transformation

Worthy of a Pulitzer Prize, An American Summer, by Alex Kotlowiz, is a much needed book in a time of great division. The book features an array of stories that will tear and anger readers’ hearts. The different testimonies are wondrously connected, and although some finish happier than others Kotlowitz does not trade fairytale endings for the hellish, violent realities. This book covers abandoned communities and gives victims a voice. Kotlowitz tells Chicago’s citizens’ stories from the summer of 2013, but the book took on a life of its own and did not release until 2019.  

“Chiraq” is an infamous nickname that combines the words Chicago and Iraq and is used to stress the Windy City’s war zone like violence. The name gained international attention after the 2015 movie, Chi-raq. With 14,033 people killed by violence in the last 20 years, it is understandable why Chicago often has such darkness associated with it. 

Those who live in parts of Chicago are often reduced to stereotypes such as thugs and murderers. Alex Kotlowitz (who is also a renowned journalist, professor, and filmmaker) pulls the world aside and looks past the snippets of news clips covering inner city communities. Kotlowitz has spent the majority of his life fighting for the lives of Chicago’s victims, both innocent and guilty. He does this by spreading empathy in the sheltered hearts of citizens. 

Kotlowitz came from humble beginnings, but admits he was not aware of the vast poverty that wreaks havoc in inner cities. Covering heavy violence was definitely an unlikely path for him. But a trip to Horner, which were project buildings in Chicago, (where Mother Theresa had once served) helped erase his ignorance in regards to what he calls “the other America”. It also completely changed his life by inspiring his notable writing. 

Kotlowitz leaves a remarkable legacy with his award winning book, There are No Children Here, which documents two young brother’s lives in Horner.  He spent years doing hands on research for both There are No Children Here and An American Summer which contributed to both of their successes. 

I finished An American Summer in four days. It was a rare occasion where I felt there was nothing to critique. I believe everyone should read An American Summer, but some content may not be suitable for young readers.

 Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, it did leave me with an uncomfortable feeling of heartbrokenness. Kotlowitz’s simplistic, but elegant style of storytelling gave me empathy for gun victims, drug dealers, gang members, and even murderers. Each tale felt like a living nightmare, many times leaving me in tears. I yearned for the pages to give me a reason to hope, therefore I could not put the book down. 

Hope is given in the book. Previous characters from Kotlowitz’s past books (spoiler alert) such as Jimmie Lee (a former, powerful gang leader) make an unexpected appearance in chapters. Their new sense of purpose weakened my despair, and made the book’s purpose clear. This book is about anguish and faith which together form a reason to create change. 

This book did not end like most. Kotlowtiz often has used the technique of providing a vague, mixed-feeling finish that indepth readers can see as both a hint of redemption and defeat. 

Because of the book’s unusual finish, I was left  with an eerie feeling of emptiness. I wanted more pages. Where was the perfect ending? Kotlowitz geniusly, and bravely doesn’t provide readers with either an ending filled with destruction or perfection, but instead, he creatively writes an ending hinting towards hope despite deep tragedy. This confirms to readers that things are not okay in the world. Readers cannot just accept this as a finished story, but rather a story that people need to add to. Kotlowitz wants his audience to help brainstorm solutions, and then put those solutions into action. Very few books inspire change like An American Summer.  

An American Summer may not have a feel-good ending, but the ending does perfectly capture the essence of the book. Kotlowitz retells a meeting he had with a man who was once shot named Edward. Edward appears to be understandably, uninterested in Kotlowitz. Undisturbed by the awkward interaction, Kotlowitz begins to walk away when Edward says four heart wrenching words. “Don’t forget about me.” 

In saying this, Edward paints the purpose of An American Summer. It is a story about violence and the power of peace. It is a story that inspires the rich, poor, and everyone in between. It is a story that gifts America the passion for social justice. Readers cannot forget An American Summer.  

 There Are No Children changed how I saw the people around me. It was a change that was hard to experience, but necessary. I felt disgusted by the world's blindness to the problems many American’s face. I could not pass over a troubled student without a feeling of sympathy. I felt so bothered by the realities in There Are No Children Here, I emailed Kotlowitz, and he graciously responded to. I expected greatness out of An American Summer, and was pleasantly surprised to receive the same dose of empathy that Kotlowitz’s previous articles and books had given me. 

Kotlowitz is one of the great, idiosyncratic journalists of this century. Because of his distinct writing style, there are few other books like An American Summer. Both he and his stories build bridges between radically different walks of life. Kotlowitz also does his best to help those who touch his stories’ pages. Very few books can change a person’s perspective on life, hope, and equality. Kotlowitz’s newest book can and will do that. 

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