Friday, July 6, 2018

Fact Friday: Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: a Navajo Code Talker's story by Joseph Bruchac


Chester Nez and the Unbreakable Code: a Navajo Code Talker's story by Joseph Bruchac. Illustrated by Liz Amini-Holmes. Albert Whitman & Company, April, 2018. 9780807500071. (Review from finished copy courtesy of publisher/ ALAAC18.)

In 2005, Joseph Bruchac published a historical fiction novel called Code Talkers: a novel about the Navajo Marines of WWII. I featured it yesterday on #tbt. Now we have a picture book biography of one of the original Navajo men who were chosen to create an unbreakable code. 

The biography starts in 1929 when eight-year-old Betoli was sent to boarding school. There, his long hair was cut off; he was given a new name, Chester; and he was told to speak English only. When he was caught speaking Navajo, his mouth was washed out with soap. Each summer, Chester returned to his family and Navajo ways. But Chester understood that learning English would give him an advantage. He adopted the Catholic religion and became an altar boy but he also stayed faithful to the Navajo language and culture. 

In December of 1941, Chester was in tenth grade when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. They were also expert code breakers and the U. S. Marines were having trouble finding a code the Japanese couldn't break. A former army soldier, who happened to be a missionary's son and who once lived on a reservation suggested using Navajo. So Marine recruiters visited the reservation seeking English/ Navajo speakers. Twenty-nine young Navajo men were chosen to become Platoon 382. They were charged with creating an unbreakable code. One that could be used faster than the machine they were currently using. They were also sworn to secrecy. After thirteen weeks of training, two men stayed behind to teach the next round of Navajo recruits and the rest were dispatched to the Pacific where they transmitted messages in the heat of battle. They saw men die. Chester worked while ill and exhausted. 

When he was sent home in January of 1945, he couldn't tell friends or family about the work he did because he was still sworn to secrecy. He was probably suffering from PTSD so his family arranged for a four-day healing ceremony called an Enemy Way. Eight months after Chester returned home, the war ended. In all four hundred Navajos had served as code talkers. The language that had nearly been beaten out of them as children had help the U.S. to win the war.

In the author's note, readers learn a bit more about Chester and the fact that it wasn't until 1968 that the code was declassified. It wasn't until 1982 that the code talkers were officially recognized. In December of 2000, then President Bill Clinton bestowed gold medals to the original twenty-nine code talkers. Two pages of the code follows and a timeline ends the book.

There is no note as to the media used to create the emotionally powerful illustrations that convey both the terror of the boarding school and the horror of war. It looks like pastel, but I'm no artist. The full and double-page spreads catch the eye and invite lingering. The accessible, engaging text pulls no punches. Great harm was done to native people by the U.S. government yet, these men bravely served. 

This is a first-purchase for any kind of library. I am honored to add it to mine. Thanks to Albert Whitman for this copy.




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