Code Talker Summary

Joseph Bruchac

Code Talker

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Code Talker Summary

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Code Talker, a novel by Joseph Bruchac, uses the stories of the Navajo marines who used their native language to transmit messages during World War II as a code that was never broken. His fictional characters bring this untold story to life for us.

It begins with a man telling his grandchildren about how he won all his medals in the war. The grandfather, Ned Begay, was born on a Navajo reservation but sent to a boarding school at the age of six to learn English. He is taught at school that his language is inferior and that he must learn to leave it behind. He fulfills his studies, learning that everything he knew was wrong according to the white man.

When the war breaks out, and everyone is trying to relay secret messages without the enemy breaking the code, Ned hears that the government has begun using the Navajo language to transmit messages. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor, so Ned signs up, but is seen as unfit for service and turned away. Soon after, the government decides to recruit men fluent in Navajo and English, and Ned has his chance. Soon he is receiving training on how to become a code talker.

After his training, he is assigned to a group of marines and sent to Iwo Jima. He is part of the invasion, following his fellow soldiers onto Okinawa. When the war ends, Ned is one of the first to know because of his experience as a code talker.

He is forbidden to speak about anything that happened during this time until 1969, when he is finally permitted to tell others. He and his fellow Navajo marines find that their social status has not improved after the war, despite their significant contributions. When he returns home, he is praised while he is wearing his Marine uniform, but then he is thrown out of a bar for being “Indian.”

Now he is telling his grandchildren how his language helped to win the war after being banned in the country and treated with ridicule for so many generations. He is proud of his accomplishments and his native culture finally after all these years.

This story brings to life some of the unsung heroes of the war. Previous to the war, the government made an active effort to stamp out all Native American culture, including their language, through oppressive boarding schools and policies excluding Native Americans from many facets of American life, including serving in the military.

He describes the horrors of war clearly and gives us a look at what it was like to be in the middle of battle. There are the smells of sulfur and burning, death all around him. He is afraid, but his larger mission gives him the courage to continue.

A significant theme of the novel is that of unspoken heroism. Ned begins his life learning that his culture and language are substandard. He is not allowed to speak Navajo once he begins boarding school. His entire life he is banned and ostracized from spaces just because he is Native American. At first, he is not even allowed to serve his country in the military because of the way he must prove his age.

As the war continues, the Allies must find new and better ways to transmit secret messages. An essential part of the Allies’ military strategy is its use of Navajo, a language no one on the opposing side is familiar with. This thrusts Ned into a situation in which his language is now essential to the struggle for freedom. He could be bitter. He could tell the army to bug off, but he decides to join in the fight.

He must be able to forgive a country that has treated him poorly in the past, to be able to use his language to fight for its cause. He can see the bigger picture, and he and the other code talkers pour themselves into the mission. When they return, they are not thanked, and nothing changes for them. In fact, for a few decades, they are not even allowed to talk about their essential contribution to the war effort.

Code Talker is also a story about cultural pride. Ned’s pride for his culture took hits during his childhood and young adulthood, but he never lost the will to speak his language or retain his customs secretly. Even when he could not talk about how his forbidden language helped the war effort, he was still proud of what he had done; once the ban was lifted, he freely talked to anyone who would listen.

It is important to remember all the heroes that do not receive recognition for their essential contributions to freedom and world peace. Code Talker, although fiction, helps us to connect with a story that has been long in the making. We can look with fresh eyes at the ways that the many cultures of the United States have contributed while being kept on the fringes.