In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many Native American children were sent to government-run boarding schools where they were expected to assimilate into the "American way of life". They were taught English and humiliated and punished for speaking in their native languages. However, during World War II the government discovered that Navajo Marines who were fluent in both their native language and English were valuable assets against the Axis. These Marines developed an unbreakable code based on the Navajo language and were known as the Code Talkers. Their work was so secret that it was not declassified until 1969 - twenty four years after the end of the war.
Bruchac's novel tells the story of Ned Begay who arrived at one of the Indian Boarding Schools as a young child. Although he was forbidden from using his native language at school he did not forget it. He studied hard and became a top student. He makes specific mention of using the school library to "read every book I could get my hands on", as well as reading the newspapers and magazines available there to find out as much as he could about Japan. When he learned that bilingual Navajos were being recruited for a special project by the US Marines Begay dropped out of school and enlisted, lying about his age in order to join. As a Marine Begay continued his love of learning and research, especially in the field of history
I have always loved reading history. All through the war, I did research in ship libraries and borrowed books from Marine officers who were history buffs and who liked the idea of an Indian being a historian.The town of Bridgewater (MA) has selected this book for its next One Book One Community read. We are looking forward to a visit from Mr. Bruchac sometime this fall. It is a bit ironic that we will be hosting him at a university which does not require students to learn a second language. This book makes clear the benefit of knowing more than one language.