Monday, July 19, 2010

Code Talker - Native American Literature

Bruchac, Joseph. 2005. Code talker: A novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two. New York, NY: Dial Books. ISBN 0-8037-2921-9

Plot Summary
This story follows the life of Kii Yazhi, whose name is changed to Ned Begay by a teacher on his first day of school. After being sent to a boarding school at a very early age, Ned learns English as well as history, math, and such. He also learns that his Navajo language and traditions are not accepted by the white teachers and culture and the consequences of speaking in his native language are severe. However, Ned simply learns to hide his traditions well from his white teachers and otherwise appears to be the perfect student. Because he does so well in school, Ned becomes the perfect recruit for the Marines top secret Navajo Code Talker program during World War Two. Ned proudly joins to help defend “the sacred land that sustains us.” The majority of the book is his journey through the war against Japan – the training, the battles, the hardships, the friends, and the responsibilities of the Code Talkers during the war in the Pacific. The author includes a detailed Author’s Note that gives some history and related information about the Navajo people, the Code Talkers, and about the author’s process in telling this story. A bibliography is given as well as acknowledgements made.

Critical Analysis
This is a well-written story. While the plot, timeline, and battle descriptions can seem to be arduous and almost repetitive, they help to drive home the feeling of the soldiers that the war seemed it would never end. Bruchac tells the story in such a way that the reader is never really bored or disgusted by the details of the story but instead can begin to relate to the anxious soldiers who lived on adrenaline during the seemingly endless cycle of battle, never really being able to relax or rest until the war is over.

Since this is the central theme of the story, the Navajo vocabulary Bruchac provides in the story is probably the most notable insight into the culture. However, he weaves other aspects of the culture into the story as well. The Navajo people are described having brown skin and long black hair. From the book, we learn that men don’t really grow much facial hair and that they have an Asian look about them so that Navajo soldiers were often taken for Japanese enemy soldiers. We also learn that the Navajo people value long hair and believed that cutting one’s hair would bring misfortune so that when Navajo children were sent to boarding school or joined the military, getting their hair cut short made them feel naked and ashamed.

The story also teaches us a few of their social customs. We learn that the Navajo people are quiet and show respect by looking down at their feet when another is talking. They also point with their chin or lips rather than their hands. Bruchac also tells us that to the Navajo, water means danger and therefore, one should even avoid eating things from the water. Also, that one should avoid corpses as the bad spirit that could be around the corpse could make one sick. Bruchac also includes a traditional story of the Sacred Twins and the Monster Slayer when he describes the battle fatigue of the soldiers and is able to incorporate the traditional Blessingway ceremony as well as other ceremonial dances into the story.

Ultimately, Bruchac’s research and knowledge of the historical time period and the people represented by the story makes it an accurate and authentic portrayal. This is a highly recommendable book for anyone interested in Navajo traditions and culture or World War Two or both.

Professional Reviews
From Carolyn Phelan (Booklist, Feb. 15, 2005 (Vol. 101, No. 12))
Six-year-old Ned Begay leaves his Navajo home for boarding school, where he learns the English language and American ways. At 16, he enlists in the U.S. Marines during World War II and is trained as a code talker, using his native language to radio battlefield information and commands in a code that was kept secret until 1969. Rooted in his Navajo consciousness and traditions even in dealing with fear, loneliness, and the horrors of the battlefield, Ned tells of his experiences in Hawaii, Guadalcanal, Bougainville, Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The book, addressed to Ned's grandchildren, ends with an author's note about the code talkers as well as lengthy acknowledgments and a bibliography. The narrative pulls no punches about war's brutality and never adopts an avuncular tone. Not every section of the book is riveting, but slowly the succession of scenes, impressions, and remarks build to create a solid, memorable portrayal of Ned Begay. Even when facing complex negative forces within his own country, he is able to reach into his traditional culture to find answers that work for him in a modern context. Readers who choose the book for the attraction of Navajo code talking and the heat of battle will come away with more than they ever expected to find. Category: Books for Older Readers--Fiction. 2005, Dial, $16.99. Gr. 6-9. Starred ReviewConnections

From Melissa Bergin (Library Media Connection, February 2006)
Six-year-old Navajo Ned Begay promises to learn the language of the white people as he leaves home for the mission school. His family realizes that to protect the Navajo, they will need to work within the legal system of the government including having leaders who can communicate in English. Ironically, while the mission school tries to extinguish everything Navajo about the children, it is their native language that becomes valuable. While still in high school, Ned enlists in the Marines during World War II and becomes a part of history that neither he nor the other involved Navajos could mention for many years-code talkers. Faster than Morse code and more secure than other code methods of the time, Ned tells of how he and almost 400 others were part of Marine units that relayed battle messages across the Pacific including the battle of Iwo Jima. Told from the perspective of a grandfather telling the history to his grandchildren, Bruchac's voice as a master storyteller weaves stories, characters, and research into a compelling story of war, sacrifice, and personal journey. Heavily researched, this is a novel of still little known part of history within a culture and the larger United States that will leave readers with a different perspective of World War II. Highly Recommended. 2005, Dial Press (Penguin Putnam), 240pp., $16.99 hc. Ages 11 to 15.

From Timnah Card (The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, February 2005 (Vol. 58, No. 6))
In a retrospective narrative addressed to his grandchildren, Ned Begay describes his degrading experiences with biligaana (white) schools as a youngster and his frightening yet liberating tour of duty as a Navajo code talker in the Pacific in World War II. Ned’s explanation of the challenges Indians faced in times of war and peace is moving but never mawkish; the delicate position of all indigenous peoples is made painfully obvious through carefully worded tribal declarations and individual avowals of loyalty to the government that has oppressed these people for generations. However, this is a book about victory, not victimization; the focus is firmly on the resiliency and grace of Native America in the most trying of times. Part of that grace is displayed as Ned depicts white soldiers, Japanese civilians, and Pacific Islanders with compassion (his view of the Japanese military is understandably less evenhanded). Though Ned’s own character is laid back and sympathetic to an almost eerie extent, he consistently attributes his own unshakable serenity to the support he receives from his family and community through their participation in the Navajo Way. Other famous code talkers are introduced throughout (along with a certain future president), several of whom respond less well to their ambiguous status after serving honorably in the military. That realistic perspective, combined with multiple heart-stopping battle scenes, makes this detailed novel a dramatic yet thoughtful complement to nonfiction offerings such as Aaseng’s Navajo Code Talkers (BCCB 12/92). An author’s note and selected bibliography expand the historical picture. (Reviewed from galleys) Review Code: R -- Recommended. (c) Copyright 2005, The Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. 2005, Dial, 240p, $16.99. Grades 7-12.

This book could be used in connection with many things. Most obviously, it could be used in a study of World War Two, Code Talkers, or Navajo culture. It could also be used to expose readers to military jargon or to the native people of the Pacific islands involved in World War Two. There are many descriptive writing examples like the teachers “who watched us the way coyote watch a prairie dog hole.” There are also several statements or passages that would serve as excellent prompts for a reader’s response (“Strong words outlast the paper they are written upon.” pg 34, “You can tell a lot about a man by the way he speaks and the way he carries himself.” pg 43, or “A sense of humor can be just as important for a soldier’s survival as a gun or a foxhole.” pg 107

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