Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Code Talker

Over our last couple of family drives, we've listened to the book on CD of Code Talker:  The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWII, by Chester Nez.  For those of you who don't know what a Code Talker is -- and I didn't until I had a kid who was gaga for WWII -- they are Navajo Marines (and maybe members of other armed services) who were used as primary communications personnel during the war, since the Japanese had managed to figure out all other codes we could dream up.  There were no grammars of Navajo, nor foreign speakers, so it was indecipherable to them.

The book tells the story of a Navajo kid who first gets sent away to school forceably, made to speak English and cut his hair (something the Navajo didn't do) and otherwise do the things the white man told him to do.  Eventually he enlists and then becomes a Code Talker.  Then he goes across the Pacific with the Marines, all the way to Okinawa, whence the nuclear missions took off.

It's a fine book, at once matter of fact but unapologetically detailing the experience of a group of people who were not treated well by the US government, but who yet identified with it enough to want to fight. But by the time he gets out into the really brutal Pacific battles, especially Iwo Jima and Okinawa, much of the experience is just straight up battles:  what it's like to be there in the trenches with the smell of sulfur and charred skin suffusing everything, the pain of stepping over the corpses of people you had breakfast with a few hours ago.  For a bit I was thinking:  "this is pretty generic, we're not getting much of the specific experience of being a Navajo here."  But then I realized that that was the point, at a very basic level he was just a soldier, at once scared shitless and in the thick of it. And he spends a lot of time talking about how he grows close with a few white guys, especially these two guys Smitty and Georgia Boy.  So by the time Georgia Boy takes a slug to the neck and is spurting out blood I was basically in tears, wondering if the kid is gonna make it (I won't spoil it for you).

I've seen a bunch of WWII movies, including Saving Private Ryan, but this book drove home much better than them the raw nastiness of the war, and the depth of the bonds formed there.  Those of us who haven't had to fight wars don't get it, can't possibly get it.

And one other thing.  The Common Core is really pushing kids to read nonfiction as opposed to fiction, on the premise that so much of their life will be dealing with nonfiction texts. At a certain level, I think that's a pretty spurious idea:  just let kids read, be happy they're reading whatever.  But if there are a lot of books of this quality for kids to read, I'm all for it.  I dunno if it's supposed to be a kids book, but Natalie had surely read it before, and knew it well.

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