“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

“Choosing a lover is a lot like choosing a therapist.”

Brown Baggers met virtually on Thursday, February 17 to discuss The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. A psychological suspense filled with unreliable, flawed characters, the plot premise is this: a criminal psychologist becomes obsessed with being the one to coax a convicted murderer – a young woman who shot her husband six times in the face – to speak (she went completely mum after the murder). While the novel is fast-paced and compelling, many readers judged it to be a “shallow story,” one that “wasn’t really saying anything” and “wasn’t going to change the world.” 

This book is an opportunity to meditate on this question: why do we read “fun” books? Books that don’t necessarily serve as mirrors of our own life experiences or windows into the experiences of others? What makes them fun? 

For our group, the fun came from the twist at the end. Some enjoyed the fact that they “got” the twist and still others found fun in the fact that they didn’t get the twist. We also saw clear clues that Michaelides was a screenwriter before entering the world of novels: we could practically hear eerie music playing in the background for a lot of the book! One reader listened to the audiobook and raved about the talented performers and an interesting interview with the author at the end of the book. The themes of power and struggle were also especially sharp: we’re always fighting for power, and if not power, something. Everyone has an ego, thinks they’re the best, and wants to defend their own territory. 

The other interesting thing about a book like this is that it has the capacity to really bring true enjoyment to its readers without as much emotional, intellectual, or spiritual heavy lifting. Recently, this group has read a number of captivating but challenging books – The Warmth of Other Suns, The Yellow House, Cutting For Stone, The Nickel Boys, Red At the Bone, and Just Mercy, all in the last calendar year. Reading increases your concentration and vocabulary, helps you learn, improves memory, and serves as a vehicle for critical thinking. Reading is also entertainment. Admiring an author’s ability to entertain us is similar to admiring athletes, comedians, or other celebrities who entertain us. Being entertained, while not a necessity, brings light to our lives, and is often invigorating and energizing. 

Still, one reader detested the “narrator as liar” trope and other readers found fault with the diary trope. The diary here, while expository for the reader and meant to provide a different textural feel within the writing, felt like a convenient trick for the author, and unrealistic to read. Who puts dialogue into their diary entries, even going so far as to include dialogue tags such as quotation marks and paragraph breaks?

Which brings us back to the question: we can’t avoid knowing we are reading fiction here. One reader said the book required inordinate suspension of belief. Often when we read fiction, the characters and the world they inhabit are “made up” but nevertheless believable. You might have noticed a lack of fantasy novels listed in this group’s recent reads, but members who enjoyed the book helped inform other members of the joys of reading unrelatable fiction. 

To begin, the book was described as an “easy” read. One you could get caught up in, swept away in, wanting to know after every single page what happens next?! Also, one person’s eye-roll of a book is another person’s immersive joy. One reader said they were waiting for the “nitty gritty”: waiting for the intricate weaves of life that create realism. These characters might feel one level removed from “real,” but maybe that works. Consider this – your fully-real neighbors and friends come with inconvenient baggage that doesn’t serve the plot! These characters, then, could be crafted into perfect tools to create an all-encompassing pacing, mood, and atmosphere. As a reader, you are free to swim swiftly with the currents, unencumbered, no messiness or complexity not directly related to the story world. 

Put one final way, a few members of our group finally came to this consensus: we know authors are “taking us places.” Authors create experiences that cause us to laugh, cry, and scream. But we as readers don’t want to see them doing it – we don’t want authors to expose themselves, reveal their own tricks. So, what do you think? Did Michaelides sweep you away into this thrilling mystery, or did you see too much of his hand in his handiwork? 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, March 17 to discuss We Are Not Free, JMRL’s 2022 Same Page title. Be sure to check out our array of accompanying activities and festivities! 

Other titles mentioned:

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie 

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze 

Authors mentioned: 

Louise Penny 

Ruth Rendel 

Our upcoming titles: 

“They did what other human beings looking for freedom, throughout history, have often done. They left.”

Brown Baggers book club met virtually on Thursday, January 20, to discuss The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It is the group’s tradition to read the longest book of the year in January, and this year was no exception. Coming in at around 622 pages, this nonfiction book about the Great Migration is “epic” in more ways than one; Wilkerson interviewed more than a thousand people, and the book has been called a “major assessment,” “definitive,” and “destined to become a classic.” For an excellent selection of interviews, articles, and a podcast and TED talk, all diving deeper into Wilkerson’s work and impact, visit the “News, Reviews & Interviews” page on Wilkerson’s website. Some curious readers will appreciate the 100-ish pages at the end of the book detailing the methodology of the research, sources notes, and an index.

Our group was not intimidated by the length or scope of the book, and found Wilkerson’s choice to follow three individuals (Ida, George, and Robert) clarifying and grounding – it’s easier to hold onto facts when you have a human story woven throughout. The three people featured were not perfect…as a group, we didn’t like everything about them. But they were fully human, come alive on the page. They were flawed but captivating. They moved across the country out of life-preserving necessity – or in order to be who they really wanted to be. The book’s title comes from Richard Wright, author of Black Boy and Native Son, who wrote: 

“I was leaving the South

to fling myself into the unknown . . .

I was taking a part of the South

to transplant in alien soil,

to see if it could grow differently,

if it could drink of new and cool rains,

bend in strange winds,

respond to the warmth of other suns

and, perhaps, to bloom”

We talked about the inclusion of repetition. The amount of repetition did work for many readers who read the book in “gulps” (putting it down for a while, then picking it back up). The repetition helped them remember where they’d left off. In addition, they felt the repetition served stylistically, to illustrate the repetitive nature of appalling racism, threats, and brutality against black people. A few readers said the book was too gruesome to read, while others encouraged them to try again. This is the heart of book club – collective reading, for the sake of the conversation each month, but also for the sake of holding the book in your memory bank for as long as it can stay, and letting it shape you moving forward. For a truly difficult book but also an amazing read, some of our members recommended reading Caste (also by Wilkerson). Another member recommended the short but powerful Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. 

Many in our group did not realize the length or scope of the Great Migration. A few even said they had never heard the term “Great Migration” before. One participant shared that while they had never known about it, the Great Migration was a “big part of my life” (white flight, changes in the economy and demographic makeup of the entire country, etc.). We found that statement to be an intelligent acknowledgement recognizing the interconnectedness of lived experience. Wilkerson did a great job sinking this story into our brains and hearts. 

This is American history, but it may not be our personal history. This is African American history that lives and breathes uniquely through the families of descendants; it may be a “big part” of a white person’s life, but for a black person, this history might be your own mother or father’s story, a pivotal turning point for your family, a large reason you are where you are and who you are today. Wilkerson, in the acknowledgements, thanks her parents, “who gave me my earliest understanding of the Great Migration through their lives and experiences and through what they passed on to me…”

The three individuals Wilkerson follows through The Warmth of Other Suns each revealed bravery and desperation. We ended up arguing over who was the most courageous and sharing which moments from the book were the most startling – Robert the doctor sleeping in his car on his way out west, and the description of lynching (always very difficult to read). Wilkerson credited The Grapes of Wrath as a literary inspiration for her book, and it shows: both books are moving journeys featuring multiple protagonists. Most members loved this book and would recommend it to others. Three cheers to everyone who devoted themselves to this year’s longest read! Two snowstorms certainly helped provide time for reading! 

Brown Baggers will meet again on Thursday, February 17 at noon to discuss The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides. Email Krista at kfarrell@jmrl.org for more information.