We Are Not Free

We Are Not Free cover
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee

by Traci Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020
400 pages

Age 13 and older

The voices of 14 teenagers and young adults, all friends and acquaintances from San Francisco’s Japantown, narrate this story of Japanese and Japanese American imprisonment during World War II. The novel begins and ends in the voice of aspiring artist Minnow (Minoru). In between, chapters from the perspective of the other 13, boys and young men, girls and young women, chronicle their individual and collective experiences from March 1942 to shortly before Allied victory in Europe three years later. The intensity and range of emotions, including their sadness, anger, and frustration, is palpable as they and their families are sent first to the Tanforan assembly center (a racetrack), then to the Topaz “camp.” Family tensions—some of which existed before the war, some of which imprisonment foment or amplify—and disagreement over the loyalty oath all over 17 are eventually asked to swear to the United States (both insulting and dangerous in the opinion of many) —add to their trauma. Some end up at Tule Lake, where conditions are more overtly racist and brutal than at Topaz. A few join the U.S. Army. The narrative strand of each of their stories is never dropped even as chapters focusing on one and then another in turn. This ambitious, expansive novel always feels intimate, grounded in the lives and experiences of its distinct, vividly realized characters. ©2021 Cooperative Children’s Book Center