Oak Park, Illinois, lies at the center of journalist and NPR contributor Rachel Louise Snyder’s riveting debut novel, What We've Lost Is Nothing. This community, situated on the border between Chicago’s declining, predominantly black west side and the affluent suburbs, precariously bridges those two enclaves, with all their racial, monetary and cultural disparities. The story opens just after one quiet cul-de-sac of homes—Ilios Lane—is shocked by an afternoon of home invasions, all eight families affected to varying degrees, from a single cell phone taken, to the loss of multiple electronic devices, to one house completely trashed.
The only person home at the time of these nearly simultaneous break-ins is Mary McPherson, 15, who was skipping school with her best friend Sofia, a neighbor; both were high on ecstasy at the time. Mary’s mother Susan works at the Oak Park Community Housing Office, trying to convince young, urban white couples to move to the area in a program called Diversity Assurance. Long assuming herself to be prejudice-free, she is devastated by the burglaries, and assumes they were perpetrated by a gang from the nearby west side.
Mary’s father, Michael, sees himself as “the de facto leader of the Ilios unfortunates,” and calls a meeting that first night of all eight families on the street, where he tells them that “What we’ve lost is nothing . . . compared to what we’ll lose if we don’t unite.” But unite is just what these families don’t do, as fear and suspicion creep into their psyches. The author deftly delves into the rippling effects of the crimes on this disparate group, which includes an aging, nearly blind loner; an unsuccessful restaurant owner and chef whom Michael labels a “Francophile freak”; and Sofia’s parents, a Cambodian couple who barely speak English, and whose nephews become Michael’s prime suspects, targets of his blatant racial profiling.
Over the course of a day and night this seemingly tolerant, racially blind group of neighbors—most of whom barely know one another—gradually comes apart, forced to face the reality of their previously-hidden fears and prejudice. Snyder’s portrayal of the disintegration of this one quiet block is masterful, forcing the reader to examine the possibility of his own stereotypical behavior if faced with a similar situation.