We Are Not Free

Written by Traci Chee
Review by Bryan Dumas

For two months after Pearl Harbor, Japanese Americans lived in uncertain and hostile times. This culminated in the February 1942 issuing of Executive Order 9066 where the U.S. government ordered them into various camps. We Are Not Free follows the lives of 14 teenagers, mostly from Japantown in San Francisco, as they experience racism, hatred, isolation, confusion, and eventually freedom during the war years. It is told in fourteen distinct voices, from young Minnow—who bookends the novel—whose drawing captures life before the camps, to Frankie (a ball of rage), to Bette who finds the simplest joys in camp life, through Mas and Twitchy who join the Army and fight, for what they aren’t certain. Camp life, from life in the horse stables at Tanforan Assembly Center, to Topaz City in Utah and the racism found beyond the fence, and the isolation camp for the “no-nos” (responses to questions 27 and 28 of the loyalty questionnaire) of Tule Lake, is detailed in rich language and historical backgrounding.

Chee sets out to detail every possible emotion that could be found in the camps in this important book, but by giving each character their own chapter, it almost becomes an anthology of emotions, which may make it hard for young readers to connect with each character. But this is a story that forces the reader to look hard at the realities of hatred and racism, and it rips off the band-aid of old wounds and forces the reader to reconsider and reflect. Historical and hand-drawn images help bring the story to life. Though marketed for 12 +, language and violence may be inappropriate for some middle school readers.