Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac (2005) is a fascinating read, especially for a history buff like me. This was another aspect of World War II that I hadn’t heard much about and excited to learn about. However, unlike Aleutian Sparrow by Karen Hesse, where the war is background and the action of the book takes place in the state I’m reading at the moment (Alaska in that case), this book follows a Marine into the front lines of battle in the Pacific islands–Iwo Jima, Bougainville, Guam, Okinawa.
Obviously I knew that when I chose the book, so in this book I wasn’t expecting much in way of New Mexico landscapes and setting. From that perspective, it’s not the best choice for my reading challenge. But in another way, it’s perfect. The main character is a Navajo, and what it means to be a Navajo is a huge part of the book–and part of what it means to be a Navajo is to have a strong connection to Dinétah–the Navajo Nation or Big Reservation in Arizona and New Mexico.
After the trauma of the white-run Indian schools, with so many kids having their language and culture beaten out of them, the success of the Navajo code talker program is a credit to those amazing, and mostly unsung, heroes of World War II. There was a lot of history worked into this book–not just the Navajo code talkers, but also the more informal use of Native American code talkers in World War I that led to the more formalized program, the history of the Long Walk of the Navajos (similar to the Cherokee’s Trail of Tears), the Navajo’s subjugation and enslavement by the Mexicans before New Mexico became part of the United States, and other tidbits throughout the book.
There’s also a lot of Navajo culture worked in–the language, obviously, is important, as well as the irony of the government schools trying to wipe it out–but there’s also the buckskin pouch of corn pollen Ned takes and the prayers he says, the Enemyway ceremony he undergoes after his return that helps him deal with what we now call PTSD. There’s the chin-pointing, the quiet politeness, and the connection to the land.
Since this book was published in 2005, more honors have been given to the Code Talkers, including these Congressional Gold Medals, which honor not only the Navajos but many Native American peoples from all over the United States who played a part in both World Wars.
It was a good book, a fairly quick read, even with the numerous details about some of the battles in the Pacific war, and one that I’m glad I added to my challenge list. Despite the fact that most of the book does not take place in New Mexico, I really wanted to include this aspect of American history, and I really wanted to make a connection to the Native American peoples of the Southwest. It makes me want to read more–not because anything was lacking, but because it sparked my interest–and that’s what this challenge is about!
By the way, I’m going to be listening to the other Code Talker book written by Chester Nez, one of the original 29 who developed the code on Audible. As I read the Bruchac book, what I really felt was missing was the sound of the Navajo language. Audible happened to have my other choice for a Code Talker book, so I’m listening to that. I will probably not do a full review, but I will add some notes on this page about my experience.
Some of the reviews on Audible for the audio version of the Chester Nez book are not very complimentary toward the narrator, but they seem perturbed by the narrator’s pronunciation in English rather than Navajo, and, honestly, from what I’ve heard so far I don’t know what the big deal is–his voice and inflections are fine, if a little dry. If my opinion changes as I get further into it, I’ll edit this, but seriously, I have no idea what people are complaining about. In any case, as I said, my main interest in listening to the audio version is to hear the spoken Navajo language, so I’ll edit here later to let you know how that is as well.
NOTE: I have to say that if I had to just read one of the two Code Talker books, I’d read the Chester Nez one. Not that the Bruchac book is bad in any way, but there is more detail in the Nez book, at least in the section that takes place in New Mexico. I’ll update again once I finish. As for the narrator, I still don’t know why people were complaining. Yes, he’s dry, but it’s a historical memoir. I did listen to it at slightly faster speed than normal (1.25x), but really, I think his voice fits the voice of the text.
I’ve found two discrepancies between the two Code Talker accounts (Bruchac’s fictionalized one and Chester Nez’s memoir). When I read the Bruchac novel, his descriptions of the re-training sessions or meetings at Pearl Harbor and later on Guadalcanal made it sound, to me, as if the Code Talkers got, perhaps, more R&R leave than the other Marines. However, Nez, while mentioning the importance of keeping up-to-date on new additions to the Code, seems to indicate that, if anything, they got less because they were so crucial. I suspect it may be a mix of the two–if a significant portion of their R&R was taken on Guadalcanal instead of other destinations (Nez mentions missing a trip to Australia), and separate from the other Marines in order to include meetings for re-training, then there may have been a perception (both by the Code Talkers and by the regular troops) of their either getting more or less. Nez seems to believe they received less; he talks about fatigue–mental, physical, and emotional–but recognizes the value placed on their mission and is quietly proud of both the work he did and its importance. The second discrepancy is a minor one about food. The Bruchac novel indicates that the men all received a big meal, often including large portions of steak, before a battle; Nez says it was only the Sea-bees who had the steaks, though they willingly shared with anybody who showed up in their mess line.