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.