Thursday, October 24, 2013

CODE TALKER, by Joseph Bruchac

Bruchac, Joseph. (2005).  Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War Two.  New York:  Dial Books.
Code TalkerISBN 0-8037-2921-9


A boy from a Navajo reservation goes to school to learn English and eventually is recruited into the Marines.  He becomes a member of a special team of Navajo soldiers whose secret mission was to send war messages during World War II using a code within their own sacred language, so that the enemies could not crack the code.  Many years later, he is finally able to talk about his classified assignment.  This is historical fiction—the protagonist is fictional, but the events and battles in the story are real.  The author includes a note at the end about the Navajo and the Code Talkers, as well as a selected bibliography with books about the Navajos, Code Talkers, and World War Two.


Joseph Bruchac researched this material very carefully.  He is not Navajo, but is western Abenaki.  His family has long been involved in the preservation of their native language, so Bruchac found the use of the Navajo language in wartime to be fascinating. 

The storyteller is a grandfather, looking back over his life.  He says, “Grandchildren, you asked about this medal of mine.  There is much to be said about it” (1), and he uses careful, measured words to communicate his experiences.  The author writes, “You cannot weave a rug before you set up the loom” (3) and so his story begins with the protagonist, age 6, about to leave his home to go to the mission school and learn English.  We see his family dressed in their finery to send off their little boy.  “She was dressed in her finest clothing—a new, silky blue blouse and a blue pleated skirt decorated with bands of gold ribbons.  On her feet were soft calf-high moccasins, and she wore all her silver and turquoise jewelry.  Her squash-blossom necklace, her bracelets, her concha belt, her earrings—I knew she had adorned herself with all of these things for me” (5).  The image firmly sets the scene from the point of view of Kii Yazhi, our protagonist.  Our sympathy goes to him, alone in a new environment.  Then the early chapters are a brutal revelation of what the Navajo suffered at the hands of the American school masters.  He is given a new name (Ned), his hair is shaved, and his own clothing and jewelry is taken from him.  Their language was scorned and forbidden, which creates a powerful irony that their language is a very real part of what allowed America to help win World War II. 

The Navajo culture is treated respectfully, as Bruchac describes the protection ceremony to send Ned away, the Blessingway. “Even now, sixty years later, I can still feel the beauty of that night.  I can hear the twelve Hogan Songs that began that night…” (55).   Ned keeps his sacred pollen bag with him throughout the war.  “Each morning, I thought of my home and my family.  I stood facing the rising run.  I took corn pollen from the pouch I always carried at my waist, touched it to my tongue and the top of my head, then lifted it up to the four sacred directions as  I greeted the dawn” (82).  This excerpt shows both the reverence given to this action, but also contains the cultural marker of how the number four is often sacred to Native Americans, as opposed to the the number three (Vardell, n.p.)

The language of the text is simple and direct.  Because we know that this is a grandfather looking back, we know he survives it all, which helps reduce possible uncomfortable tension.  Bruchac does not shy away from describing battles, such as “I heard a cry from the man on my left and turned to see my friend Georgia Boy holding his own throat.  Blood was spurting through his fingers and his helmet had been knocked off “ (192) but he brings readers back to modern times with a carefully included direct reference to his grandchildren as he writes, which reminds us once again that the character of Ned survives the war intact and is only remembering these horrible events, not going through them again.  It reduces the drama, but makes the book accessible to a younger audience.  The main characters do not die.  Even when we think two of the men he describes have died, it turns out they did not. 

The book is described in a review as “non-sensational,” which is a perfect description.  The character of Ned simply describes things in the order they happened, with very little fanfare or added shock-value.

Ned and many of his Navajo friends mention the frustration of being called, “Chief” by their fellow soldiers.  You can practically see them roll their eyes as they discuss this with one another.  Bruchac gently makes his point about the demeaning nature of this kind of talk through the Navajo soldier’s response to it when not around their white comrades.  Ned makes several white friends, which is a new experience for him.  Through his relationship with Georgia Boy (who is one who calls him “Chief”), we see how people can transcend culture to really connect (105).

This book shows Native Americans playing an important role in American history as soldiers for the United States of America.  Many people do not know the role the Navajo people had in World War II, so this book has incredible value as it shows the Navajo experience as code talkers in World War II. 

Not all Navajo members were code talkers because they had been forced to forget too much of their own language.  They had been much abused.  As we see near the end of the book, even when in uniform, Ned is refused service in a bar and is treated terribly simply because he is Navajo.  The grim reality of prejudice is painted clearly, but not overplayed in this novel.  Ned is not surprised by what he experiences.  The focus remains on the amazing accomplishment of the Navajo soldiers as a group, not his own bravery or his own suffering.  It’s an inspiring tale of overcoming oppression and staying true to yourself and being able to help others because of it.



“In the measured tones of a Native American storyteller, Bruchac assumes the persona of a Navajo grandfather telling his grandchildren about his World War II experiences. Protagonist Ned Begay starts with his early schooling at an Anglo boarding school, where the Navajo language is forbidden, and continues through his Marine career as a "code talker," explaining his long silence until "de-classified" in 1969. Begay's lifelong journey honors the Navajos and other Native Americans in the military, and fosters respect for their culture. Bruchac's gentle prose presents a clear historical picture of young men in wartime, island hopping across the Pacific, waging war in the hells of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Iwo Jima. Nonsensational and accurate, Bruchac's tale is quietly inspiring…”—School Library Journal, May 1, 2005.

“Bruchac's fictional Ned Begay represents all the Navajo Marines who, despite their treatment by white America, fought valiantly in foreign wars. Ned tells his own story in simple, measured prose, as a grandfather's tale to his grandchildren. The author never allows his lovely and poignant novel to become a polemic against the mindless abuse of the mission schools or the horrors of war in the Pacific, but he instead offers a portrait of a brave and generous man who represents any teenager caught in the forces of history. This fine novel should find a place in all collections serving young adults.” Voice of youth Advocates, April 1, 2005.

"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." – Booklist, Feb 15. 2005.

  •  Read nonfiction books about the Navajo Code Talkers, such as Nathan Aaseng’s Navajo Code Talkers (Walker, 1992), or Deanne Durrett’s Unsung Heroes of World War II:  The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers (1998).  Compare and contrast the fiction and nonfiction works.
  • Some may want to watch Windtalkers, the movie that is about the Navajo Code Talkers in WWII, but keep in mind it is a rated R movie, due to language and graphic war violence.
  • Read other Joseph Bruchac books and do an author study. 
  • Do a character map of Ned and his relationships throughout the novel (as explained in Smolen and Oswald, pg 102-103).


I really am glad to have learned more about this topic.  I found the first part of the book the most riveting, interestingly.  I had had no idea that the mission schools were so dehumanizing.  The details were so specific that it really brought the whole thing to life, like the washing of the mouth with soap.  It was horrifying.  The battle scenes were less than thrilling for me—I don’t like war books in the first place and the language used in the text does feel younger than you’d expect for a book about war.  I am not sure how engrossing this would be to a teenager, but the topic itself is certainly fascinating.

Works Referenced:

Aaseng, Nathan. (2000). Navajo Code Talkers.  New York:  Walker & Company.

Durrett, Deanne. (2009).   Unsung Heroes of World War II:  The Story of the Navajo Code Talkers. Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press.

Smolen, Lynn Atkinson and Ruth A. Oswald, ed.  (2011).  Multicultural Literature and Response:  Affirming Diverse Voices.  Santa Barbara, CA:  Libraries Unlimited.

Vardell, Sylvia.  (2008).  “Overview” Culture 4 Native Am Lit  Texas Woman’s University.  Blackboard class LS 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults.  Web.  Accessed October 23, 2013. 

Woo, John (director). (2002).  Windtalkers.  MGM (Nicolas Cage, Adam Beach, actors)

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