Book Club Review: “We Are Not Free”

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We are part of a group of librarian friends who have had an ongoing book club running for the last several years. Each “season” (we’re nerds) we pick a theme and each of us chooses a book within that theme for us all to read. Our current theme is “Book Bingo” where we drew reading challenges commonly found on book bingo cards from a hat and chose a book based on that.  For this blog, we will post a joint review of each book we read for book club. We’ll also post the next book coming up in book club. So feel free to read along with us or use our book selections and questions in your own book club!

Book: “We Are Not Free” by Traci Chee

Publishing Info: HMH Books For Young Readers, September 2020

Where Did I Get This Book: The library!

Where You Can Get This Book: WorldCat | Amazon | Indiebound

Book Bingo Prompt: A book that takes place during a war.

Book Description: “All around me, my friends are talking, joking, laughing. Outside is the camp, the barbed wire, the guard towers, the city, the country that hates us. We are not free. But we are not alone.” 

We Are Not Free, is the collective account of a tight-knit group of young Nisei, second-generation Japanese American citizens, whose lives are irrevocably changed by the mass U.S. incarcerations of World War II.

Fourteen teens who have grown up together in Japantown, San Francisco. Fourteen teens who form a community and a family, as interconnected as they are conflicted. Fourteen teens whose lives are turned upside down when over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry are removed from their homes and forced into desolate incarceration camps. In a world that seems determined to hate them, these young Nisei must rally together as racism and injustice threaten to pull them apart.

Kate’s Thoughts

This was actually my Book Bingo prompt, and I wanted to think a little bit outside of the box when it came to picking a book that took place during a war. Partially because I’m not super interested in military themed fiction, and partially because I wanted to kind of wanted to stay away from pro-militaristic themes. It quickly occurred to me that I hadn’t yet read Traci Chee’s YA historical fiction “We Are Not Free”, a book about a number of Japanese-American teens who are incarcerated during World War II because of the United States Government’s despicable Executive Order 9066. I’ve reviewed a lot of recent novels about the Japanese American Incarceration on this blog, and found this to be the perfect opportunity. And boy, what a book, and what a great book club discussion.

Chee approaches this story through the eyes of numerous characters, each one getting their own chapter with different perspectives and sometimes writing styles, and each character engages with a different fact or theme of the Incarceration. At first I was a little daunted by the idea of so many characters, but Chee does a really good job of not only letting us get into their heads and get to know them, but also touches on so many aspects of the Incarceration this way. Instead of finding the characters to be maybe less complex due to the one chapter approach, I ended up really caring for all of them as they mention each other and as we get into their heads, allowing us to see how they are perceived by others, but also how they see themselves. They all feel very authentic in their voices, either in how they are reacting to their ordeal and their trauma, or even just in moments of them having very relatable teenage moments that go beyond the Incarceration, like teen love, or school issues, or moments of joy that can still be found in spite of everything.

But we also are able to explore a number of aspects of the Incarceration through these characters that may have been a bit overstuffed had it just been one or two. Chee skillfully tackles things like having to leave everything behind, the cultural divide between the non-Amercain (by force of the government) Issei vs their American Citizen children Nisei, the loyalty oath that was given as a choice to sign or not to sign (and why some may sign and others may not), and the experience of those who enlisted in the war to try and prove their loyalty to their country. And many more. The book doesn’t shy away from any of it, and finds the nuance and complexity in some things while being unflinchingly honest about others. It is such a valuable book in that way for anyone who wants to learn about the Incarceration, as it has relatable and enjoyable characters whom the reader will attach to, and will therein learn through. Our book club had some awesome conversations about this book, and I have no doubt that classrooms would as well.

I’m glad I finally read “We Are Not Free”, and glad that this cycle’s theme got me off my butt to finally do so. It’s highly recommended, and necessary, historical fiction.

Kate’s Review 9: Powerful, engrossing, enraging, and hopeful, “We Are Not Free” is a valuable tool to learn about the Japanese American Incarceration that is must read for those interested in the subject.

Book Club Questions

  1. What did you think of the structure of this novel? Did you like all the different perspectives? Why or why not?
  2. When did you first learn about the Incarceration? How was it approached when you did learn about it?
  3. Chee has an author’s note about the use of modern language sensibilities in this book? What were your thoughts on this choice?
  4. Did you have a chapter you liked best or that stood out from the others? What was it about that chapter that spoke to you?
  5. What were you thoughts on the way Chee portrayed the conflict between Nisei vs Issei in how they dealt with their ordeal?
  6. Do you think this would be a useful tool to teach the Incarceration to teenagers? Why or why not?

Reader’s Advisory

“We Are Not Free” is included on the Goodreads lists “Japanese American Internment in YA & Middle Grade Fiction”, and “Surviving in the Japanese Relocation Centers of WW2”.

Next Book Club Book: “The Ten Thousand Doors of January” by Alix E. Harrow

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