Review of We Are Not Free

We Are Not Free
by Traci Chee
Middle School, High School    Houghton    386 pp.    g
9/20    978-0-358-13143-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-0-358-33000-4    $9.99

Chee follows up her successful fantasy trilogy (The Reader and sequels) with this very different work of historical fiction, drawing on her personal family and cultural history for a story of World War II. Beginning in March 1942, three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, fourteen young people — all but one from San Francisco’s Japantown — chronicle, in interlinked stories, their lives over the course of the next three years. Their first-person, present-tense narratives depict a multiplicity of thoughts, feelings, and experiences, particularly regarding the unjust treatment of Japanese American citizens before, during, and after incarceration in internment camps. The result is slightly disorienting as characters come and go, but the overall effect is nuanced and kaleidoscopic. Gaman is a Japanese word for endurance, a dignified response to adversity; it’s a characteristic most of these young adults exhibit in one form or another: “The ability to hold your pain and bitterness inside you and not let them destroy you. To make something beautiful through your anger, or with your anger, and neither erase it nor let it define you. To suffer. And to rage. And to persevere.” Various graphic elements connect the story to its historical period (drawings, photographs, maps, postcards, telegrams, and newspaper articles), while the author’s note grounds it in Chee’s extensive research and family experience.

From the September/October 2020 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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