The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

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We Are Not Free
We Are Not Free
by Traci Chee

Hardcover (1 Sep 2020), 400 pages.
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Books For Younger Readers
ISBN-13: 9780358131434

"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."

From New York Times best-selling and acclaimed author Traci Chee comes We Are Not Free, 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.

We Never Look Like Us

Minnow, 14 March 1942

It's been over three months since the attack on Pearl Harbor, and my oldest brother, Mas, has told me to come straight home from school each day. Take the bus, he says. No loitering around, he says. I mean it, Minnow.

I used to love walking back to the apartment in the afternoons, seeing all the interesting things going on in the city: bodies being excavated at Calvary Cemetery, buildings going up in empty lots, chattering kids coming out of Kinmon Gakuen, the old Japanese language school.

But that's been closed since last December, when it became the Civil Control Station, because Pearl Harbor changed everything for us. We have a new eight-p.m. curfew. People are starting to talk about involuntary evacuation. And Mas has warned me not to get caught out alone. Don't do anything that'll make them come down on you, he says. Don't give them any excuse.

And I haven't.

Until today.

I don't know what happened. I was walking out of George Washington High School, headed for the bus stop like always, when I saw the football team practicing on the field, racing back and forth across the grass with the red towers of the Golden Gate Bridge rising beyond the school building like a promise, and before I knew it, I was sitting in the bleachers with my sketchbook in my hands and my butt going numb on the concrete.


I'm so panicked, I gather up my sketchpad and bolt right past the bus stop, hoping to make it home before Mas gets back from work.

No matter how many times I try to explain it, he never understands. Sometimes I get so wrapped up in a drawing that I get transported onto the paper, and the charcoal suspension cables and pencil players become more real to me than the bleachers or the grass or the school, and when I come back to my body, it's hours later, everyone's gone, and I'm walking home alone as fog cascades into the bay.

I know it'd be faster if I waited for a bus, but I'm afraid if I hang around at one of the stops, someone will chase me off, or call me "Jap!" or worse. So I keep walking, and buses keep passing me while I'm between stops, and I keep thinking I should just wait at the next one, but . . .

Mas says that's my problem—there's always something going on inside my head, but I never think.

My middle brother, Shig, likes to tell him it's because my head's up in the clouds, where it doesn't do me any good.

I'm still walking, trying to decide if I should keep going or try waiting, when I catch sight of a flyer for Sutro Baths in a drugstore window, and I stop cold. For a second, all I can think is, Mas was right. I don't think.

I should've gone straight home. I should've waited for a bus. I shouldn't be out like this. Because it's dangerous to be hanging around with a face like mine, three months into the war.

It was a Sunday in December, and we were getting ready for lunch when Mas asked Shig to turn on the radio and we all heard the news that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor.

Mom's face went taut and white as a sheet. If I was going to draw her the way she looked then, I'd draw her with thin lips and frightened eyes, pinned to a clothesline, her body flapping in the wind of a passing Nakajima B5N bomber.

We've never been allowed inside Sutro Baths, but I used to draw it from the park at Lands End (the glass ceilings, the rough water, the tide-eaten cliffs), imagining what it was like inside those glinting cupolas: the smell of salt water and wet concrete, every sound in that echoing space a slap.

Now I kind of wish the whole thing would slide into the Pacific.

The ad says GET IN TRIM FOR FIGHTING HIM! and in the center there's a drawing of a Japanese soldier with diagonal slits for eyes, nostrils like watermelon seeds, and two big square teeth jutting out over his lower lip.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from We Are Not Free by Traci Chee. Copyright © 2020 by Traci Chee. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Books For Younger Readers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

In this moving YA historical novel, Chee follows 14 Japanese American teenagers facing persecution and interpersonal challenges during World War II.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Author Traci Chee is best known for her young adult fantasy trilogy, The Reader series. We Are Not Free is a complete departure from that genre, with a setting and characters close to her heart and history. In this novel, which begins in 1942, 14 Japanese American teenagers are ripped from their lives in San Francisco and relocated to detention camps scattered across the western United States. Chee draws on the experiences of her own grandparents to recreate events and bring to vivid life characters with a wide range of personalities and versions of the broken American dream.

The novel employs 14 points of view — eight boys and six girls. Chee is up to the challenge of keeping the voices distinct. There is the artistic Minnow and his solid-as-a-rock older brother Mas, hyperactive Twitchy, angry poet Tommy, musical Yum-Yum, blonde-wigged Bette. These 14 points of view also permit the author to explore a variety of possible outcomes for the teens. Initially, all are temporarily relocated from their homes in a tight-knit San Francisco neighborhood to the nearby Tanforan racetrack, where they are housed in horse stalls. The next three years find them scattered around the country, and even abroad, yet still faithfully keeping in touch.

From Tanforan, the teens and their families are sent to barracks at the Topaz Detention Center in central Utah. Young people at Topaz attend school and play sports, but the barbed wire surrounding the camp never allows them to forget that they are incarcerated. One man is shot for standing too close to the fence, a scene Chee describes in heartbreaking detail. Since some of the teens at Topaz are of age to enlist and are U.S. citizens, they are given the option of volunteering to join the armed forces — with an all-Japanese unit. Mas and Twitchy join up, are sent for training, and soon are posting letters from the Western front — Italy, France, always places where the fighting is the most fierce and deadly. One of these young men returns to his loved ones. Another, though fortunate to have a friend nearby in his final moments, does not.

An alternative destination arises from a questionnaire given to the residents of Topaz and other detention centers relating to citizenship. Nisei — the Japanese language term for young people born in the United States to parents from Japan — were U.S. citizens. Issei — the term for immigrants born in Japan — were legally denied American citizenship. On the questionnaire, detainees were asked whether they would renounce allegiance to any country or government other than the United States. For Issei, answering "yes" rendered them stateless. In We Are Not Free, the Katsumoto family is disheartened by the questionnaire. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Mr. Katsumoto, a grocer, had placed "We Are American" posters in the windows of his San Francisco shop. His children, Stan and Mary, were model American students. The question breaks his trust in his chosen homeland.

Tommy Harano and his family are in a similar situation. Tommy longs for his parents to see him, love him, accept him as he is, but they only want him to conform to their perception of what a good, traditional Japanese son should be. He renounces the United States and gains their approval. Some of the adults who answer "no" to the controversial question consider returning to Japan, a country at war, a country they have not seen for decades. In the meantime, families like the Katsumotos and the Haranos are sent from Topaz to another detention center, Tule Lake, on the northern border of California. And, from Tule Lake, the teens continue to correspond with their friends in Utah and Europe.

There was yet another alternative, which Traci Chee explores with two of her young characters. Nisei deemed "loyal" by the United States have the option of taking a job in the Midwest or on the East Coast — far from California and its relative proximity to Japan. Bette (she of the blonde wig) and quietly rebellious Shigeo leave their families in Topaz and find apartments and jobs in Chicago and New York City for the duration of World War II — as always, consistently keeping in touch with their friends.

Some novels are plot-driven, others character-driven; We Are Not Free is situation driven. For teen readers already familiar with Farewell to Manzanar, They Called Us Enemy, and Baseball Saved Us, Traci Chee offers a wider, multifaceted picture of this shameful episode in America's past with a more individual focus.

Reviewed by Catherine M Andronik

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
The individual tales are well crafted and emotionally compelling, and they resolve into an elegant arc. Ambitious in scope and complexity, this is an essential contribution to the understanding of the wide-ranging experiences impacting people of Japanese ancestry in the U.S. during WWII.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A compelling and transformative story of a tragic period in American history...Each voice is powerful, evoking raw emotions of fear, anger, resentment, uncertainty, grief, pride, and love...An unforgettable must-read.

Booklist (starred review)
Chee is a master storyteller...Here, she uses her own San Francisco–based Japanese American family's history to inform a blazing and timely indictment of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Her passion and personal involvement combine with her storytelling talents to create a remarkable and deeply moving account of the incarceration…[We Are Not Free] should become required curriculum reading on a shameful and relevant chapter in U.S. history.

School Library Journal (starred review)
The novel may be fiction, but it will be hard for readers not to fall deep into the harsh realities these teens face. The writing is engaging and emotionally charged, allowing the readers to connect with each character...Chee's words are a lot to take in, but necessary and beautiful all the same.

Author Blurb Veera Hiranandani, Newbery Honor winning author of The Night Diary
A brilliant and intimate portrayal of several San Francisco teenagers during the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans in World War II. Chee's nuanced and unforgettable characters will serve to enlighten readers about this devastating and shameful piece of America's past. A beautiful, painful, and necessary work of historical fiction.

Author Blurb Akemi Dawn Bowman, Morris Award Finalist and author of Starfish
Traci Chee masterfully weaves together harrowing truths about the mass incarceration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans during WWII, and features a cast of friends whose honesty, strength, and love for one another will break your heart. With characters who need to have their stories told, and a history that should never be forgotten, We Are Not Free is powerful, moving, and so incredibly necessary.

Author Blurb Debbi Michiko Florence
These powerful interconnected stories of incarceration during WWII told by Nisei youth will wrap around your heart like barbed wire. With deft touches of humor, heart, pathos, and anger, We Are Not Free by the talented Traci Chee is the best Japanese American incarceration novel I've read. I loved this book that epitomized gaman and will be buying a copy for everyone in my family.

Print Article Publisher's View  

The U.S. 442nd Infantry Regiment

442nd Regiment with German POWsIn Traci Chee's young adult historical novel We Are Not Free, which follows 14 Japanese American teens from San Francisco through World War II, two young men in Topaz detention camp, Mas and Twitchy, decide to volunteer for the army. Japanese American men were unable to serve until early 1943; the American government had considered them enemy aliens since the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Director of the Office of War Information Elmer Davis urged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to reverse the ban on soldiers of Japanese descent in a 1942 letter, in part for propaganda reasons, but also because he believed most Japanese Americans were loyal citizens and deserved to serve if they wished.

But once they enlisted, Japanese American soldiers were not incorporated into other units; they were segregated in the 442nd Regiment. The unit was made largely of Japanese Americans from Hawaii, supplemented by over 2,000 men from the mainland detention camps. Among the 442nd's recruits was Daniel Inouye (1912-2012), former Senator from Hawaii.

In the chapter narrated by the character Twitchy, readers march with the Regiment to battlesites like Livorno, where the young Japanese Americans were lauded by their superiors: "They were superb! They showed rare courage and tremendous fighting spirit. Everybody wanted them," said General George Marshall. Sent to France, the Regiment arrived in the Vosges Mountains in late October 1944. They anticipated a short break — but then word came that the First Battalion, made up largely of men from Texas, was in trouble. The Americans had been gaining ground against the Germans, but the battalion became separated from their fellow combatants and were soon surrounded and overwhelmingly outnumbered by German forces. A fighter squadron managed to airdrop supplies, but ground troops could not reach them. Soldiers later heard that Adolf Hitler himself had sworn that this was a battle he would not lose, no matter how many Germans died. After days of fierce fighting and high casualties, the Japanese American soldiers, outnumbered four to one, pushed through the enemy lines and rescued the "Lost Battalion," over 200 American soldiers.

Altogether, throughout the war, the 442nd Regiment lost 600 young men. For its size (18,000 soldiers), it was the most decorated unit in the history of the United States with 9,486 Purple Hearts, 21 Medals of Honor, and seven Presidential Unit Citations. The Medals of Honor were bestowed in a ceremony in 2000 by President Clinton, who said of the 442nd soldiers: "They risked their lives above and beyond the call of duty. And in so doing they did more than defend America. In the face of painful prejudice they helped define America at its best."

The 442nd Regiment with German POWs, courtesy of Sons and Daughters of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team

Filed under People, Eras & Events

By Catherine M Andronik

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