Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews

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

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

Joseph Bruchac
For ages 12 and up
Speak, 2006   ISBN: 978-0142405963

Kii Yazhi is just six years old when he leaves his family and home and travels in a wagon, for more than one hundred miles, to the town of Gallup. There the little boy becomes a student at the mission school. His parents feels that he needs to learn the ways of the bilagaanaa, the white people, if he is going to do well in life; and the only way he can do this is to learn their language and study in one of their schools. The little boy does his best to be brave knowing that he needs to “try hard to learn for our people and our land.”

Kii Yazhi arrives wearing his best clothes and silver family jewelry, but these are taken away from him and he never sees them again. Worse still the people at the school cut his hair, which Kii Yazhi finds very distressing. Having long hair is important for both Navajo boys and girls, men and women, and losing their beautiful long, black hair is heartbreaking. However, the worst thing of all is the fact that Kii Yazhi and his classmates are not allowed to speak their native language. At all. If they do so they are punished. It seems that one of the main purposes of the school is to force the children to forsake “our sacred language and our whole Navajo culture.” Kii Yazhi is given a new English name and he becomes Ned Begay.

Ned turns out to be a very good student and he does well in school. In part he does well because he is too small to participate in sports. What he lacks in inches Ned makes up for by studying hard. In addition, he has a natural interest in learning for its own sake. For example, he is eager to learn about far off places and loves looking at maps. When Ben and his classmates participate in a food drive to send food to the starving Japanese affected by an earthquake, Ben makes an effort to learn about the people from the island nation that is so far away.

Later Ben reads articles in newspapers and finds out that the Japanese are eager to acquire the resources that they need not through trade but by conquering the countries around them. Country after country falls to the Japanese and then, on December 7, 1941, they attack Pearl Harbor. Ned and his classmates are shocked and distressed. Though their people have suffered at the hands of the Americans, they feel that it is their duty to stand by their white neighbors in times of trouble.

At first Navajos are told that they cannot join the cause, but in April of 1942 the situation changes. A recruiter from the Marines comes to the area and he is looking for Navajos who can speak good English and Navajo. Ned cannot believe what he is hearing. After being told that they must not speak Navajo, now they are being told that their language is wanted.

In March, 1943, after waiting for a year, getting permission from his parents, and attending a ceremony of protection, Ned joins the Marines. Like all the Navajo recruits Ned does very well in boot camp. He and the other Navajos are tougher than the white boys and have no problem completing the physically challenging tasks that they are given. What none of them realize is that some of them, the ones who know English and Navajo best, will be selected to do a job that will have a huge impact in the war in the Pacific. It will be a job that they alone can do; a job that will save countless lives.

This remarkable book tells the story of the Navajo code talkers whose service in World War II had a big impact on the outcome of many battles. It is fascinating to follow Ned’s journey from his home on the Navajo reservation, to the dangerous islands in the Pacific where countless Japanese soldiers fought to the death to hold onto the territory that they had taken.

At the back of the book the author provides his readers with further information about the Navajo people and the code talkers who did so much for United States.