After years of research, reading hundreds of books and countless articles, watching documentary films, visiting museums and libraries, speaking with many people, including surviving code talkers, there was an immense amount of history that I felt needed to be told. As a result, [my] first full draft was so heavy with facts — names, dates, places — that you could have used it as an anchor.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “The character will come out more as I revise it. There’ll be a little less history and a lot more of his story.”
There’s still a lot of history in this story and I’ve done my best to keep it accurate. 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, including the boarding school episodes at the start of the tale. With the exception of some of the white Marines, such as his buddies Smitty and Georgia boy, the characters named in this novel are all real people. Their stories have been well-documented elsewhere.
— from the Author’s Note, p. 223
Over the past few years I’ve read a number of YA historical war novels. Most of them tend to be weighed down by facts, the shaky prose overburdened by information that the protagonist-narrator would not have had, and unsupported by believable characterization and personal history. Code Talker neatly avoids the major pitfalls of this type of narrative. Though the book is, after all, the story of a fictional character doing precisely what real Navajo men did, the narrative tendency towards date- and fact-heaviness is checked by an appreciable amount of character and characterization. The narrator-protagonist, Kii Yazhi, more broadly known as Ned Begay, is an individual even as he is part of several groups.
The unseen audience to whom Ned narrates his experiences is his grandchildren. This framing device allows for more overview of what happened when than Ned’s personal experience of any given battle would give, and allows Ned to relate things he learned after the war, including pieces of the Japanese civilian experience. This device also underlines Ned’s character as a strongly curious, intelligent man to whom gathering information comes naturally. Despite the nightmare of residential school, Ned loves learning and spends all his life – during the war and after – studying many different subjects.
Despite the best efforts of white teachers to stamp out Navajo language and culture, Ned loves and is immersed in his people’s traditional ways; there is very much a sense of belonging and nation when he meets other Navajos as well as a personal awareness of the sacred. But white dominance and war mean navigating many micro-cultures: white-run boarding school (and student subversion, when possible); marine and training camp culture; the code talker groups, the norms of men at war.
Ned is an engaging narrator, level-headed, and thoughtful. Partly due to Ned’s curiosity and partly due to the irrepressible gossip that spreads between troops (the army is a massive rumour mill), snippets of other men’s experiences are worked in seamlessly, building the atmosphere that Ned inhabits around the reader as well. Many Navajo code talkers are named; even when Ned doesn’t work with them for long, we get pieces of their real-life stories.
This includes the Indigenous peoples of the islands occupied by Japanese troops, because Ned takes the trouble to communicate with escapees and newly-liberated islanders.
You know, grandchildren, for a long time even after the war, it was hard for me to have any good thoughts about the Japanese. What troubled me the most was the way they treated the native people of the islands they conquered. they believed only Japanese were real humans. Anyone else could be treated like a dog. We must never forget, as the Japanese forgot, that all life is holy. (p. 148)
Red flags should be waving in your head at this, yes? Initially implicit, a few chapters later the comparison between white Americans’ treatment of the Navajo and other Indigenous Americans and the Japanese treatment of island peoples is made explicit: Long Walks, concentration camps, mass starvation, and murder.
If the red flags weren’t enough, shrill alarm bells ought to go off when Ned describes what he learned after the war from Japanese civilians and former soldiers about government censorship (to the point of murder), propaganda, and lying in defiance of all objective fact.
Um, yeah. This is timely.
But I don’t want you to read this book only because of the sirens and red flags. I want you to read it for the love between Ned and his parents; and for the determination with which the Navajo children kept their language and customs; for the pride the code talkers – there were no code talkers but the Navajo, by the way; nobody else could learn their language fluently enough – took in their work, their people, and their sacred language used to save lives; for the close friendships that grew up between code talkers, and between code talkers and white soldiers; for the healing and reconciliation through ceremony; for the hope that even after war there is life and beauty.
Also, the story is darned funny at times.
The book closes with three selected bibliographies: Books about the Navajos, Books about the Code Talkers, and Books about World War Two.
Despite my prayers, when the day of embarkation came and they took us down to the pier, I felt as if I was being sent to my doom. Bill Toledo, another of the Navajos in our platoon, saw how nervous I was as we waited for the order to go on board.
“Look up,” he said.
I did, raising my eyes to the tall superstructure of the big boat where a U.S. flag was waving.
“No.” Bill pointed with pursed lips. “Higher, up there.”
I leaned way back to gaze at the blanket of blue sky where a few small clouds hung, white as the fleece of a new lamb.
“Even out on the ocean,” Bill said, “Father Sky will be above us. We will never be forgotten by the sky.”
At that moment, I felt my fears leave me.
— p. 90