“We are not free. But we are not alone.”

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Same Page Community Read is a reading initiative that “provides opportunities for book groups, classrooms, and individuals to explore the themes of a single book by an author appearing at the Virginia Festival of the Book.” This year our title was We Are Not Free by Traci Chee, a historical fiction young adult (YA) novel written as a collected series of sixteen chapters, told from fourteen teenage points of view, as young Japanese-Americans’ lives are changed by the mass incarcerations of World War II. 

Book clubs all around our service area read and discussed the book. As always, some members enjoyed the book, while others did not. It should be safe to say that everyone learned something, either from the book or from the conversation. Far from simply a hodgepodge collection of vignettes, and far from a dry chronology of events, this novel takes readers into the themes of community and belonging, especially as interpersonal tensions reach their tightest, sharpest points – many readers identified the intracommunity fighting and severance associated with the loyalty questionnaire as the rawest, deepest exploration within the book. 

Chee’s choice to include so many character points of view worked for most readers, as even in cases of collective trauma, there is no one universal experience. Instead, reading this novel was like revolving through a kaleidoscope. With so many personalities, quirks of character, and family dynamics at play, this choice to fictionalize Chee’s actual family history and use a multitude of perspectives also surely helps the book appeal to teens – each chapter is a manageable, bite-size narrative, and teens (and adults!) have many opportunities to see themselves reflected on the page. Many found Chee’s characters to be realistic and we all had different characters that we loved, connected with, and pitied. 

Readers also shared thought-provoking facts that helped us deepen our understanding of the book. One reader shared that the rules of the detention centers actually contributed to juvenile delinquency, because the degradation that parents experienced as they were usurped in power by the centers’ hierarchies stripped them of the authority their children had once seen as absolute; families also lacked the privacy necessary for teaching, correcting, and disciplining their children. 

We were all especially interested in the afterword. It was significant and filled with depth. For many readers, the Japanese Incarceration during World War II was not adequately covered in school. Some had never heard of it at all, and others remembered it being sanitized and whitewashed to appear like a picnic in the park. The afterword described Chee’s family’s experience in detention centers, and included a poignant explanation of language usage. One reader had never thought of “internment,” which is the term most commonly heard, as a euphemism, and Chee’s afterword gave him appreciation for how others not only experience the world, but experience words. We all know words have power! But sometimes we forget that words strike each of us differently. 

While the harshest criticism we heard was that the book was “definitely YA,” we noted that could also be a compliment – Chee, after all, set out to write a book for young adults. But while the writing sometimes felt juvenile, the book is a timely and relevant read for people of all ages. One reader told us this book is now counted as one of her favorite books of all time. 

If you’re interested in joining a book club at your local library, go to https://www.jmrl.org/calendar.html and use the features on the left side of the screen to limit the program offerings to book clubs. If you’d like to hear Traci Chee be interviewed by a JMRL staff member, listen to our “we are not free” podcast episode: http://onthesamepage.blubrry.net/2022/03/03/s-5-ep-7-we-are-not-free/.

Other titles mentioned: 

Facing the Mountain by Daniel Brown 

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson 

No-no Boy by John Okada 

The Japanese Lover by Isabel Allende 

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne and James Houston  

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban 

We also have compiled this reading list of other titles related to We Are Not Free

“She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.”

Books on Tap held a hybrid meeting on Thursday, February 3 to discuss Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved (she won the Pulitzer Prize the following year). Virginia has reckoned recently with how literature is and should be presented in schools (see this article for an example featuring Beloved – a book challenge dating back to 2013, and still making headlines). We decided to involve ourselves in the best way we know how – reading freely. 

Beloved certainly makes you work hard. The language itself requires acclimation, but like all the best books written in dialect, jargon, imaginary language, or an unorthodox style, the longer we stayed within the world of the narration, the more taken with it we became. At one point, Morrison completely omits punctuation, and you can imagine how that affects the reader – after initial bewilderment (“is something wrong with my Kindle?”) the reader is swept away into a world of panic. No room to pause or take a breath, readers are tempted to blur through the prose, but forced to slow down to capture each word and turn of phrase. The grammar ultimately points the reader to the truths of this history as much as the syntax, as much as the plot. 

You’ll also be working hard to stomach the evil absurdity of plantation life. Our group was most amazed to read about the mental toll slavery had on the enslaved. Many in our group discussed their childhood education was “whitewashed,” with more familiarity with the physical brutality. We certainly had less vivid renderings of how slavery stripped people of their identities and had the power to demolish their entire sense of self. Morrison writes about one particular confrontation between two lovers, Sethe and Paul D, in which Paul D says to Sethe, “you got two feet, Sethe, not four.” This indictment demands that Sethe see and remember her humanity – understandably, that’s something very, very difficult to do when you’ve suffered physical, emotional, and sexual trauma. Also especially difficult when your mothering instincts are so strong and striking, but the institution of slavery severs, as best it can, even the deepest, most intimate ties you might experience with your children. What does it mean to be a mother when your children do not belong to you? 

One of our readers wondered what writing this book must have done to Morrison. Being so deep in with these characters, would she be able to escape unscathed? We talked about the reality of inherited generational trauma. We also pointed out that Denver, the character with the most growth, serves as a hopeful touchpoint in the novel, which provides just the right touch of balance. 

One member of our group expressed a feeling of heartbreak that this story is so important, but because it is not the most accessible, easy-to-read book, a lot of readers probably put the book down. Another member said she “inching” towards understanding slavery for what it really was, and what slavery looks like today throughout the world. She thanked the book club for “making me do something I always should have done.” 

For an unsparing view of slavery, read Beloved. For torture and survival, read Beloved. For a book that makes you work hard, read Beloved. For magical realism, mythical creatures and characters, ghosts and reincarnation, and “evil personified,” read Beloved. This is a moody, haunting, disturbing novel; complex in its characters and its style, this book is not easy – maybe that’s what makes it a good choice for studying closely in school. 

Books on Tap will meet Thursday, March 3 at 7 pm to discuss We Are Not Free by Traci Chee (JMRL’s Same Page title for 2022). Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information. 

Other titles to check out: 

JMRL’s 2022 Black History Month Reading List 

Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson 

Other Toni Morrison titles 

Maya Angelou titles 

The Pieces I Am (Toni Morrison documentary)

“The only true threat to birds that has ever existed is us.”

JMRL’s Books on Tap met virtually on January 6th to discuss Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy. Published in 2020, Migrations is the author’s first book of literary fiction, set in a near future where the impact of climate change has drastically reduced the global wildlife population. Part nautical adventure, part mystery, the reader is led to piece together the background of protagonist Franny Stone, who is determined to follow the migration of the last Arctic seabirds called terns.

Our readers seemed to really love this book, or not care for it at all. Several readers admitted to being moved to tears by the story, finding it compelling and intense. Most found the characters/crew on the Saghani fishing boat to be believable. More questions and conversations revolved around the human, personal decision characters make: how much do we expect others to risk for our own pursuits? When is courage healthy, and when is it a symptom and an exposition of deeper problems? Migrations also includes parent-child relationships as well as romantic relationships. 

In the end, we learn there was another motivation behind Franny’s journey to the terns and most of our group found the ending hopeful.

The author’s next book, Once There Were Wolves, published summer 2021, takes place in the Scottish highlands and continues the theme of man’s impact on the environment and wildlife. 

Other books mentioned:

Moby Dick

In the Kingdom of Ice

The Perfect Storm

Lab Girl

Hidden Figures

Feed

Books on Tap will meet on Thursday, February 3rd  at 7 pm, to discuss Beloved by Toni Morrison. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information.