Saturday, July 14, 2007

Module 4: Code Talker

Bruchac, Joseph. 2005. Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two. New York, NY: Dial Books. ISBN 0803729219.

Plot Summary
Kii Yazhi is a Navajo boy who is sent to a boarding school when he is young. At school he given the name Ned Begay and is forced to speak English and ignore his culture. Ned becomes a good student and learns English well. When he is older, Marine recruiters come to the area looking for Navajo men who know both English and the Navajo language. He eventually joins the Marines and becomes a code talker. Ned serves as a Marine throughout World War Two, but must keep his work as a code talker secret. In 1969 he is finally able to share his important role as a code talker with his family and others.

Critical Analysis
Code Talker is written in an engaging style since it feels like the reader is being told the story in person by an elder. Although this is a historical fiction novel, while reading the book it feels like Ned Begay is a real person who is truly sharing his story with his grandchildren. There are many cultural markers in the story, and although it is a fictional work Bruchac says in the author's note that "everything that happens to Ned Begay happened to real Navajo people." Code Talker can help readers to understand aspects of Navajo culture and to understand World War Two.

One cultural marker present is physical appearance. When Ned first goes to school he and his classmates are dressed in their finest clothes and jewelry. There are other dark-skinned people at the school, but they have short hair. At first Ned does not realize that they too are Navajo since he has never seen a Navajo with short hair before. Ned and the other children are given matching military style uniforms and caps to wear. Everybody's hair is cut short, leaving them to feel "naked and ashamed." When Ned joins the Marines he goes through this same process, but this time his hair is shaved off completely. He is able to make a joke about it, though, and calls himself a plucked turkey.

Ned's Marine unit fights against the Japanese, and he discovers that he resembles a Japanese man. Some of the Indian Marines are mistaken for Japanese and are injured or killed. Ned later learns that his white friends Georgia Boy and Smitty were told to stay by his side to keep him safe.

Many aspects of Navajo culture are present in Code Talkers. When Ned first arrives at school he and the other students introduce themselves to each other. He explains the proper greeting when he says, "We said hello, spoke our names, told each other our clans and where we were from." Ned's introduction is "Yaat'eeh. I am Kii Yazhi. I was born for Mud Clan and Born to Towering House. My birth place is over near Grants. I am the son of Gray Mustache."

While going to school he and his family had become Catholic, but they still kept their Navajo traditions and did not "forget the Holy People and our Navajo Way." Before Ned leaves to join the Marines a Blessingway ceremony is performed for him to provide him with protection. The Blessingway is described in detail in the story. At the end of the ceremony Ned is given a pollen pouch. He says, "I reached into the pollen bag and took some out to scatter from north to south. I inhaled the dawn four times, giving a prayer to myself, to the new day, and to all that exists." Ned repeats this action with the pollen every morning throughout the story. At one point Ned sends his dirty uniform home so that his family can perform another ceremony using the clothes he has worn in battle.

When Ned is in war he must get used to being around dead bodies. This is difficult for Navajos since they are supposed to avoid the dead. "To even look upon the body of a dead person may make you sick. If someone dies inside a hogan, that hogan is abandoned forever." The Navajo also believe that it is possible for the spirit to get sick from war. Ned shares the story of Monster Slayer, who killed many of the monsters who were harming people. Monster Slayer became ill and "the first Enemyway ceremony was done to cure him by restoring him to balance." When Ned returned home from the war he was ill and had many nightmares so the Enemyway ceremony was performed for him. He says that at the end of the ceremony, "when I opened my eyes, I was home, truly home. Big Schoolboy was shaking his rattle and I was at peace. My balance had been restored. I could go forward on a path of beauty."

Language is one of the most important cultural markers of the story and many Navajo words are incorporated. When Ned goes to school he is not allowed to ever talk in Navajo. He cannot even keep his own name and is given the name Ned Begay by a teacher. Once when he accidentally speaks Navajo his mouth is washed out with soap. It is a horrible experience that leaves him disoriented and bleeding with soap coming out of his mouth, nose, and eyes. He is unable to walk and has to be led to the dormitory by classmates.

Once Ned joins the Marines his knowledge of both Navajo and English become important. Navajo words must be chosen as code words for everything that the code talkers will need to say during war. A special alphabet made up of Navajo words is also used to spell out words that do not have a Navajo translation. One of the difficult aspects of being a code talker is committing all the words and codes to memory. The code continued to evolve throughout the war and the code talkers would meet in Hawaii to learn the changes that had been made. Some of the messages that were sent in the Navajo code are included in the story.

Review Excerpts
"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." -Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books

Share nonfiction books about the code talkers. Some of these books are Warriors: Navajo Code Talkers by Kenji Kawano and Navajo Code Talkers by Nathan Aaseng. There are two versions of Navajo Code Talkers. The juvenile version was published in 1992, and the adult version was published in 2002.

Share the book Navajo Long Walk: The Tragic Story of a Proud People's Forced March from Their Homeland by Joseph Bruchac. This will help to further explore a portion of history which was mentioned in Code Talker.

Share the book Navajo: Visions and Voices Across the Mesa by Shonto Begay. This collection of poems can help to further explore Navajo tradition while providing a modern view of the culture.

No comments: