66 pages 2 hours read

We Are Not Free

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


We Are Not Free is a young adult novel by best-selling author, Traci Chee. Inspired by stories told to Chee by her grandparents and other family members, the novel portrays the events following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, wherein people of Japanese descent were forced into American internment camps. The story is told exclusively through the eyes of a group of teenagers who lived in San Francisco, California before the war. Originally published on September 1, 2020, We Are Not Free has won several awards, including the 2021 Printz Honor Book. It was also a 2021 WNDB Walter Award Honoree and a finalist in the 2020 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

This study guide refers to the September 1, 2020, Clarion Books, Illustrated ebook edition, and quotes the author’s use of anti-Asian racial slurs that were prevalent in the novel’s historical setting.

Plot Summary

Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective; the chapter subtitles indicate the name and age of the character.

The novel begins in March 1942, just over three months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Navy Air Service. Since the attack, there has been open hostility against Asians all throughout the United States, including in San Francisco where the story is set. Minnow Ito, 14 years old, has been instructed by his older brother to take the bus and go straight home from school every day. One day, however, the artistic Minnow becomes distracted and loses track of time as he sketches the students practicing on his high school’s football field. Later, rushing home, Minnow decides to walk rather than ride the bus. As he approaches his neighborhood, nicknamed Japantown by the locals, he is jumped by a group of Caucasian teenagers. Minnow is rescued by his brothers, Mas and Shig, as well as their group of friends—Twitchy, Frankie, Stan, and Tommy.

President Roosevelt establishes the War Relocation Authority, an agency facilitating the internment of Japanese Americans. The people of Japantown begin to hear stories of friends and relatives all along the West Coast being forced to sell all their belongings and move to incarceration camps. When the order comes in April, Minnow’s entire community has five days to reduce their belongings to only two suitcases. They are escorted onto buses by armed soldiers, unsure of their destination. The Itos and most of their neighbors are taken to Tanforan, a horse racetrack now converted into a temporary camp. The families share two-room barracks that were once horse stalls.

At Tanforan, there is no school, the food is subpar, and there is no furniture except for army cots. Many families use scrap wood to make furniture. They only stay at Tanforan for a few months before being put on a train to a new camp, Topaz City in Utah. The new camp is bigger, and the barracks a little more comfortable. Many of the camp inhabitants see snow for the first time, and most are given jobs that distract from boredom and despair. A school is established, there are dances and small parties, and in the spring a baseball team forms.

In 1943, the U.S. Army arrives to recruit young men for the war effort. At the same time, all persons over the age of 17 are required to fill out a loyalty questionnaire, creating tension within the camps; some still feel loyal to America, while others are so outraged by their incarceration that they refuse to swear loyalty to the American government. This tension boils over when an older man, playing fetch with his dog, is shot for coming too close to the camp fence.

As tension builds within the camp, protests and violence break out. Some inhabitants are given the option to either relocate within the United States or to apply to colleges with the help of charity organizations. Others refuse to ask for help and continue to protest their circumstances. The government decides to separate those whose questionnaires reflected loyalty and those whose questionnaires did not. The latter are taken to a new camp, Tule Lake, in California.

Conditions are much different at Tule Lake. There is a heavier military presence. Protests and violence continue. The internal police begin arresting people, sometimes for no clear reason. Stan is arrested. Not long after, another of Stan’s friends, Kiyoshi, is arrested for being five minutes late for curfew. Jail conditions are poor, and Stan is often sick. When the head of the internal police tries to punish one prisoner unfairly, Kiyoshi stands up to him with support from the other prisoners. After a week-long hunger strike, Stan, Kiyoshi, and several other prisoners are released without explanation.

At Topaz, Frankie, Mas, and Twitchy have been recruited for the war effort, and they leave for boot camp. They have decided to prove that they are just as loyal as any other American. Mas pushes his fellow soldiers to fight harder to prove their worth, and they are eventually sent to Italy as part of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earns a reputation for bravery. Twitchy travels all through Italy and into France as the war continues. In France, Twitchy loses two close friends as his battalion advances. On a hill, Twitchy and his fellow soldiers see that their advance is pointless, but they fight on. A bullet slices through Twitchy’s upper thigh, killing him.

News of Twitchy’s death devastates his friends still in the camps. There is news that they will soon be allowed to go home after three years of confinement, but this does not bring them out of their grief. Minnow and his mother are among the first to return to San Francisco only to find that their old neighborhood no longer exists: Businesses once owned by friends have now been turned into nightclubs and openly racist Caucasian-owned businesses. Minnow and his mother have trouble finding anyone willing to rent to them. Minnow’s mother refuses to leave the city where her husband died and where she, too, plans to die one day. However, with the return of Stan and Shig, Minnow begins to feel at home once more.

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