Author: John Bruchac
Genre: Teen; Historical Fiction
Number in Series: N/A
I first heard about the Navajo code talkers from an XKCD comic < xkcd.com/257/ ;>. I thought, "Wow, this is too random for even this guy to have come up with." As it turns out, I was right: Randall Munroe didn't come up with the idea of a Navajo code talker: World War II did.
When you want to say something that your enemies cannot understand, you say it in code. What better way to say it than with a code that only a few thousand people on the entire planet understand? That was the idea behind the Navajo code talkers. Their language is very difficult for a non-native speaker to learn and, apparently, it takes longer to say things in Navajo than in most other languages (62). As such, it is an excellent code language, especially to someone who has never heard Navajo before.
The Navajo code talkers were small regiments of Marine "scouts". They were primarily used in the Pacific theater of the war and they relayed almost every message to and from the frontlines. Their unbreakable code was the untold story of the war. The story was not told because the code was so secretive and so good that the Army wanted to be able to use it again if needed.
The reader assumes the role of one of Ned Begay's grandchildren as he relates to them the story of the medal he was awarded. Every now and then, Ned will begin a paragraph with, "Now, grandchildren," as he explains something. This gives the book the feel of sitting on the floor of the home of a grandparent who is telling us a story.
The code talkers were not allowed to tell their story to anybody for nearly twenty years. Today, we can learn the story and, with it, learn a newfound respect for the Navajo indians that were so mistreated by our country.
Kii Yáhzí is the main character. Rather, that is his Navajo name. His American name became Ned Begay (not quite as cool, unfortunately). Ned grows throughout the story, and we find out more about him as he understands more about himself. He doesn't change as much as he just realizes who he is as a person, as a Navajo, as an American, and as a Marine.
He learns much about the world and the people around him through the war and through the actions of those immiedately around him and those who are far away from him. We learn things, as well, through his eyes. Ned is a very observant person, and he tells us all we need to know about his life and what he is going through.
There are many minor characters. There is Ned's family, his Navajo relatives and friends, teachers, and his other Marine buddies. Some character play a part for only one chapter, and some for even less than that. Whoever the characters are, we see how they played a role in Ned's life, how they shaped his opinions of humanity and the world and culture in which he lived.
Even when the characters are very minor literary-wise, we see how important they were to Ned. We never have to wonder, "Does Ned like that guy? Was that a vital person in Ned's life?" He may not say it flat out, but it is easy to tell.
However, the minor characters that stay with Ned throughout the story don't change very much at all. On the other hand, the story is Ned's story, not theirs, so we don't need to see them change.
The story starts with him as a young child who is just leaving home to go to American boarding school. It progresses through his life there, through high school, and through World War II. He enters the war as a Marine, and we hear all about his training and the battles he lived through.
There are little anecdotes, little side stories that are found throughout the narrative that really add to the realism of the book. They provide us with insight into who Ned is as a person and a Navajo.
Goodness, are there a lot of settings. We have the Navajo reservation, the boarding school, high school, training camps, boats, islands, foxholes, etc. etc. We can picture Ned as he is in these different locations. We may not be able to paint a picture of them or build replicas of them, but that isn't at all necessary. We just need to be able to visualize the locations, and we are able to do just that.
There are some funny parts and a couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but nothing else really stands out as great. On that same note, nothing is bad. The dialogue is solid, enjoyable, and natural. The major characters all have their own voices and we can hear them as they speak.
We are given details about the Navajo language and way of life, the story's characters, the places, and the culture of the time and people Ned encounters. These details are always relevant, understandable, and well-placed and are never dry, dreary, heavy-handed, or excessive.
I'm fascinated by language and culture, so having the Navajo words spelled out and defined is a great detail for me. (However, I suck at pronunciation, so I won't even attempt half of the words in the book.) Ned describes different Navajo rituals to us in the book, such as the Blessingway and the Enemyway. Both are captivating. They really make me want to go hug a Navajo (not really, but, honestly, they make me want to visit the reservation).
We are given enough details about the environment of the different locations to which Ned travels that we know what he was feeling while he was there. We are shown enough about the characters that we can picture them; nobody is just a talking head.
This was original enough. The main idea with historical fiction is to do one of three things: 1) fill in an account that cannot be recovered, like those of Biblical characters, 2) to tell a general story with a specific one, such as talking about feudal Japan through the eyes of a single samurai, or 3) to think about what would have happened if events in history had played out differently, for example, if the South had won the American Civil War.
Code Talker obviously took the second route. I think this may be the only book of its genre about its topic. And the topic is interesting. Bonus points!
Writing Style: Pass
At times, it really sounds like Mr. Bruchac is a legit Indian ("My own tribal heritage is western Abenaki" , so he sorta is) and that Ned Begay is not a made-up character. A lot of research did go into making this book, however ("Even though my main character and narrator is fictitious, I haven't invented events. Everything that happens to Ned Begay happened to real Navajo people" ), so it's historicaly accurate enough for me, and possibly even for a research paper. (Failing that, Mr. Bruchac included a list of books about Navajo, WWII, and the code talkers in the back of the book.)
The writing style in and of itself isn't fascinating, but it doesn't distract. It's clear and it's good. As I said before, it starts out sounding like a real Navajo is talking to you, but, later on in the book, words and phrases that sound more American come through. While odd at first, it is suiting; Ned Begay is being more and more tied to America as the story progresses. So, the change is fitting.
I enjoyed the opening. I picked this up shortly after re-reading that XKCD comic. I was just planning on reading a little that day at the library where I work and re-starting later in the week. I read the whole first chapter (three pages) before I remembered that I was at work. That's what you want a book (or any other media, for that matter) to do to you: you should be able to get lost in it, forget yourself and where you are and live through the characters, at least for the time. The opening of Code Talker definitely did just that.
The Middle: 3.5
There were parts that weren't very interesting or exciting, though I can't say why. While very historical, this doesn't read like a textbook or a history book at all. It reads like a short novel, which it is. Of the two-hundred-fourteen pages, maybe twenty or twenty-five weren't up to par with the rest of the book. Honestly, that's not bad. There were no more than like four or six consectutive pages that were of that quality. After those four pages, we'd have something interesting, like a story about Ned's group messing with their captain during training or the Blessingway ritual. So, don't think that you can just skip a few chapters when you get close to being bored. This isn't one of those books where you can get away with reading just the first and last few chapters (and I only did that once).
Not the best. It seemed rather anticlimatic and too fast. The main problem with historical fiction is that we all know how it's going to end because it has already ended. World War II is over: the US won the war against Japan after the atomic bombs were dropped. So, Mr. Bruchac already had it stacked against him when it came to writing a powerful ending. With that in mind, it was fine.
A solid, average length. The pages are rather short, so it isn't a long read at all. It wasn't too short, but it wasn't too long. There didn't seem to be anything unnecessary or extraneous, though, again, the ending was a little rushed.
If anything, it was just a touch too long. However, I wouldn't really know what to take out. Life isn't always exciting all the time, so we can't expect a realistic book about someone's life to be exciting the entire way through.
Enjoyable. Definitely enjoyable. I wasn't glued to it the entire time, and I wasn't longing for it when I couldn't read it for a few days, but it was the main thing I did when I had free time. There were parts where I was lost in the book, but it wasn't the whole length of it. However, I think that added to the realism of the story and to Ned himself.
Final Word: While not amazing, Code Talker is well-written and has very interesting subject matter.
Recommend?: Yes, definitely; put it on your reading list. It's imperative that we know about our past, especially what our forgotten warriors have done for us. Historically, our nation owes the native Americans so much. The least you can do is read a good book about their valor.