“We’re already fighting a war out there. Why do we have to fight one in our own country too?” wonders Minoru “Minnow” Ito, a Japanese American teenager living in San Francisco during World War II. He’s one of the 14 characters whose story Traci Chee tells in We Are Not Free, a captivating portrait of teens whose experiences were shared by over 100,000 people of Japanese ancestry who were forced to live in inhumane incarceration camps during the war.
The topic is a departure for the New York Times bestselling Chee, whose acclaimed debut novel, The Reader, kicked off an epic fantasy adventure trilogy that concluded with 2018’s The Storyteller. But it’s also a deeply personal one, inspired by the experiences of her grandparents and their families; the book's title comes from words spoken by her great-aunt during her incarceration.
We Are Not Free is a lively but sobering saga that starts in March 1942, just before the forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes began, and continues through March 1945 as several characters return to their much-changed neighborhoods, where lives and livelihoods have been destroyed and racism remains rampant. The grand sweep of the novel allows her to explore the wide variety of situations that Japanese Americans faced during this time: forced resettlement, loyalty pledges with hidden consequences and military service that often included unjust treatment.
Chee’s 14 narrators hail from nine different families and include Minnow, who loves to draw; lively, rebellious Twitchy; college student Mas; softball-loving Yuki; and Frankie, who “always looks like he’s spoiling for a fight.” The connections and relationships among these teenagers form the heart and soul of the novel, and their yearnings, heartbreaks, fear and anger ring true on every single page. A “character registry” at the beginning of the book helps readers keep track of the sprawling cast, though readers may find themselves occasionally wishing they could follow some characters more closely. Even so, what Chee sacrifices in depth, she makes up for in breadth, rewarding readers with an exceptional portrait of a community scarred by prejudice, intolerance and racism.
Whether she is describing Yuki’s dismay at a shop owner’s refusal to serve her and her teammates ice cream or portraying the horrors Twitchy faces on the battlefield in France and Italy, Chee is an extraordinarily gifted writer whose words here have a searing intensity. Though her book is packed with historical detail, her characters and their interactions sparkle with energy, even as their experiences remain all-too-timely. One character warns, “It’ll happen again, if we’re not careful.” We Are Not Free is a superb addition to the works of literature that chronicle this shameful chapter of American history.