What do you say about a book that leaves you in pieces within a few pages of starting it? Given the subject matter, is very difficult to enjoy Gary Younge's 'Another Day in the Death of America' even though I raced through it in a matter of days. And to say that it was a valuable reading experience sounds a bit worthy even though it taught me more about American gun culture than any number of newspaper reports ever has. But I'm getting ahead of myself - firstly I should tell you exactly what 'Another Day in the Death of America' is about.
Saturday, November 23rd, 2013. Another day like any other. And a 24 hour period in which ten American children and teens were killed by gunfire. The youngest was nine, the oldest nineteen. White, Black and Latino, they lived and died in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news and there was no public outcry as a result of their deaths. It was, quite simply, just another day in America where - on average - seven children and teens are killed by guns every single day. Gary Younge has picked this day at random and searched for the families and friends of the dead, examining their lives and their circumstances as well as the curious and often inexplicable mix of personal choice and social situation that resulted in their deaths. Through ten chapters - one for each child - he explores their young lives and, in doing so, explores America's relationship with guns and paints a portrait of life for young people in contemporary America.
As you can probably imagine, this is not an easy book to read. It opens with the life of Jaiden Dixon, who opened the door to his mother's ex-boyfriend and was shot in the head on the spot. Jaiden was nine years old. It ends with Gustin Hinnant, eighteen years old and hanging out with the wrong kind of friends, who gets caught in the crossfire of a gang war that he was barely aware he was part of. Not all of the young people profiled by Younge are entirely innocent but none of them deserved to be gunned down, their lives extinguished before they'd even really begun. I spent most of this book hovering somewhere between sadness for the promise of young lives lost and anger that a specific set of societal conditions and expectations often contributed to these deaths. Because there is one thing that Younge makes very clear in this book and that is that simply removing guns from American society would not necessarily result in these kids being alive today.
It would be very easy to write a book about gun violence and point the figure at the gun itself as being 100% the cause of the problem - especially given that Younge is a Brit in America and therefore didn't grow up amidst US gun culture. To Younge's credit however, he doesn't jump to simple conclusions. The problem, he says, is far more nuanced. Yes, the easy availability of guns and the fact that young people can often access them readily (there's a twelve year old with a hunting permit in this book, something that I would imagine sounds insane to most UK readers) certainly plays it's part but, as Younge says, none of the relatives or friends of the children profiled consider gun culture a reason for their loved one's death. Instead they point to a combination of poverty, social stigma, lack of jobs and opportunities and peer group pressures and to the day to day struggle of being from poor, often marginalised communities who have been left by the wayside of the American Dream.
And that's where the other emotion that this book generates comes in. As well as deep sadness, there is anger. Anger that there is an expectation that a young black man growing up in South Chicago will become a gang member because that's the only 'employment' open to them. Anger that there is a resignation that being young, black and male will mean you'll probably be dead before you reach thirty. Anger that a twelve year old child can be left in a house full of unlocked, loaded weaponry and, when he shoots a playmate, that child's father is charged on the level of a misdemeanour. Yes, there is a great deal to be angry about in this book.
I think, overall, that's what Younge is driving at. It's easy to read about a mass shooting and sat "That's terrible" before moving on with your life. What Younge does so successfully in this book is to show that it's not just about the mass shootings - gun violence is a societal issue that is driven by other societal issues and it affects millions of Americans every single day. And he wants us to be distressed about that. He wants us to be angry. Most of all, he wants us to be engaged. Books like 'Another Day in the Death of America' are important because they spark debate, they engage us on a personal level and they don't offer simplistic solutions. There is no quick fix to the situations that led to the deaths of these ten young people. However, if more people - especially young people - read Gary Younge's book, there might just be a jumping off point for debate and engagement that could spark a revolution in thinking and action and change the course of society for the better.
'Another Day in the Death of America' by Gary Younge is available in hardcover and ebook now and is published by Guardian Faber. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advanced copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.