5 / 5 Stars; Young Adult, Historical, Literary
It's 1942, and Japanese teens in San Francisco have the typical teen worries: navigating family dynamics, choosing universities to apply to, aligning with cultural expectations, maintaining social relationships, and striving for acceptance and inclusion. But they also have to navigate not-so-subtle racism, such as being confused for other ethnicities, facing constant caricatures of themselves in the media, and being pointedly excluded from certain social circles and facilities. And when Japan becomes the target of the American government's ire, this group of teens faces heightened anger, oppression, and violence as well as division within their own community.
We Are Not Free by Traci Chee follows a tight group of fourteen teens and their forced removal from their home in San Francisco that scatters them across the world: first, to incarceration camps, then some shuffled between camps, then some sprawled across the US, then some sent out with the army into Europe. It's a tragic story of loss: the loss of familiarity, homes, friendships, love, trust, identity, and even lives. But it is also the story of how these teens strive, and in many ways, succeed, to hold on to each other and their dignity, despite the rifts and distance that comes between them.
Chee has written a compelling narrative about a familiar story but told it uniquely through the eyes of teens. The narrative is linear, but each chapter gives the spotlight to a different character, delving deep into each personality and their experiences, hopes, frustrations, heartbreaks, passions, and confusion. The characters don't hold back, but fill every page with gripping complexity, emotion, and power.
This was a novel I didn't want to put down. Chee plops readers into 1940s Japanese American communities and gives the scenes such authenticity we feel we're really living it. The narrative has a kind of easy, vintage vibe that manages to maintain the passion of youth that makes the voices so spunky, noble, and honest. In We Are Not Free, Chee applied a literary touch to her own family's stories and American history to create a narrative that engenders awareness, knowledge, and inspiration. This is a powerhouse of a book written by an author with compassion, dexterity, and honesty, and I can't wait to read more of her work.