January 29, 2015

Review of Code Talker

Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir By One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of WWIIHe is the only original World War II Navajo code talker still alive—and this is his story . . .

His name wasn’t Chester Nez. That was the English name he was assigned in kindergarten. And in boarding school at Fort Defiance, he was punished for speaking his native language, as the teachers sought to rid him of his culture and traditions. But discrimination didn’t stop Chester from answering the call to defend his country after Pearl Harbor, for the Navajo have always been warriors, and his upbringing on a New Mexico reservation gave him the strength—both physical and mental—to excel as a marine.

During World War II, the Japanese had managed to crack every code the United States used. But when the Marines turned to its Navajo recruits to develop and implement a secret military language, they created the only unbroken code in modern warfare—and helped assure victory for the United States over Japan in the South Pacific.

Editorial Reviews

"From Guadalcanal through Bougainville to Peleliu, Nez relates a riveting tale of jungle combat and his personal struggle to adapt to civilian life following the most cataclysmic war in our nation’s history. Gripping in its narrative, Code Talker is history at its best." --Colonel Cole C. Kingseed, U.S. Army (Ret.), co-author of Beyond Band of Brothers

"A fascinating inside look at one of WWII’s most closely guarded secrets…This is an important book, a previously untold piece of our history." --Marcus Brotherton, author of Shifty's War

"You don’t need to be a fan of World War II literature to appreciate this memoir…a fascinating melange of combat in the Pacific theater, the history of the Navajo people and the development of a uniquely American code." --The Associated Press

"A unique, inspiring story by a member of the Greatest Generation." --Kirkus Reviews
Comment:  I just finished reading this for my Breaking the Code screenplay. Some thoughts:

I'd say "riveting" is an overstatement. Unlike some readers, I had no trouble putting the book down.

Code Talker is maybe 1/3 Nez's childhood, 1/2 the war, and 1/6 the rest of his life. So the bit about his "personal struggle to adapt to civilian life" is also an overstatement. That wasn't Nez's big issue. His real challenge, which I wouldn't call a struggle, was leaving the sheltered Navajo life for boarding schools and the big city.

The book is fine on Nez's childhood. Especially if you haven't read biographies of Southwestern Indians in the pre-war years, when contact with the white man was still rare. It's great on the war years, where you get a real sense of what soldiers had to endure in the Pacific. I'd say it rushes through the post-war years...but nobody's necessarily interested in that part of Nez's story, so it's okay.

My main cavaet is that nothing terribly dramatic happens. You want heartwrenching personal conflicts in stories like these. Nez overcoming the cruel boarding-school master! Nez overcoming the racist Marine sergeant! Nez in hand-to-hand combat with a deadly Banzai enemy!

Nothing like that happened. If Nez hadn't been at ground zero during the formation and deployment of the Navajo codetalkers, we might not care about his story. What he witnessed is the interesting part--but witnessing isn't quite as compelling as struggling oneself.

Those points aside, Code Talker tells you everything you'd like to know about the origin of the codetalkers. It's a must-read on that subject. And it's a solid entry in the broader category of Native memoirs.

Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.

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