Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two

by Joseph Bruchac
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Last Updated on November 4, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778

Introduction

Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two (2005) is a young adult historical fiction novel written by American novelist, poet, short story writer, and storyteller Joseph Bruchac. Bruchac is well-known as a Native author and often writes stories which reflect his indigenous heritage, culture, and tradition. He wrote Code Talker to honor and acknowledge the contributions of the Navajo code talkers who proudly served in World War II. The book received generally positive reviews. Many literary critics agree that, in addition to its fictional narrative, it contains some autobiographical elements.

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Plot Summary

The novel tells the story of Ned Begay, a Navajo man who was recruited by the US Marines to become a code talker during World War II. At the beginning of the novel, Ned gathers his grandchildren to tell them a story about how he received all his military medals. He starts by telling them that he was once called Kii Yazhi, which in Navajo means "little boy."

When Ned is six years old, his uncle takes him to the Rehoboth Mission boarding school in New Mexico so that Ned can learn to speak English. Ned's family believes that knowing English is a very useful skill to have. The teachers of the school force all of the Native American children to assimilate to mainstream American culture and forget all about their Indian heritage and identity; they forbid them to speak their native languages, give them new clothes and haircuts, and assign them English names. Thus, Kii Yazhi is given the name Ned Begay.

Ned is a very smart and studious boy. He excels in school, but the white children often bully him and treat him unfairly, and his teachers try to convince him that his native language is useless and unimportant. When he begins high school, Japanese soldiers attack Pearl Harbor, and the US military is looking for men to join their ranks. At first, Ned is reluctant to enlist, as some of the Navajo men who enlist are deemed "unfit for service" and sent back home. However, some time later, the US Marines begin to recruit people who speak both English and Navajo. Eager to prove his teachers wrong, Ned waits until he is sixteen and then joins the US Marines.

Soon, Ned and the other Navajo recruits begin their training to become code talkers; their main job is to transmit coded messages between the Allied forces. They create a special, unbreakable code which is frequently changed, and they develop an alphabet system in which they use Navajo words. After their training, Ned and the rest of the code talkers are sent to the Solomon Islands, located in the South Pacific, and become directly involved in the invasions of Bougainville, Guam, Puvavu, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.

During their service, the Navajo code talkers are treated differently than other American soldiers; they are discriminated against and often mocked about their language, culture, and tradition. Despite all of this, however, they continue to work hard so that they can prove to everybody that their identity is not something that should be ridiculed, ignored, and invalidated.

Even though they face constant discrimination and injustice, the Navajo code talkers end up having one of the most important roles in the war: they provide crucial information to the military leaders of the Allied forces and ultimately help end the war in the Pacific. When the US Army receives their messages, they order the nuclear attack on the islands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forces Japan to surrender and capitulate. Ned and his fellow code talkers are among the first people to know that the war has ended.

Ned manages to gain the respect of his commanders and some of his comrades, and he even receives several military medals for his service. When he goes back home, however, he realizes that people don't really care about his bravery or his contribution to the war, and all they can see is the color of his skin. Further, the government has forbidden all Navajo code talkers to talk about their involvement in the war. Disappointed in his community, Ned decides to finish his education and fulfill his childhood goal of being a teacher.

Years later, in 1969, the US government finally decides to acknowledge and honor the service of the Navajo code talkers and invites many of them to the White House so that they can publicly share their stories in front of the American people. Ned is relieved that he can finally talk about his experiences, and he tells his grandchildren to never feel ashamed of their culture and heritage, instead advising them to always embrace who they truly are.

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