Thomas H. Begay and the Navajo Code Talkers Alysa Landry Ohio University Press March 2023 ISBN: 978-0-8214-2505-3 136pages HC: $32.95 order here
Rebecca: So, Ohio University Press sent us some copies of Thomas H. Begay and the Navajo Code Talkers to read together and to share our different perspectives as professional and student. Were you excited to receive this book?
Noa: Yes! I was extremely excited, especially since we are learning about WWII in school. We just read an autobiography called Farewell to Manzanar (Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston) about a young Japanese woman who spent four years in a California internment camp and watched a film called Go for Broke: An Origin Story (Stacey Hayashi)about the Nisei and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.
R: It’s important to learn about how complicated citizenship can be for different individuals and groups of people, especially in times of war. We’re a military family, and we understand the importance and privilege of serving. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like if we were denied citizenship.
N: In our own country. It’s hard to imagine being told, no, you can’t serve. Some people, like the Navajo volunteers in this book, believe it is their duty.
R: What did you expect the book to be about?
N: I expected it to be a biography of Thomas H. Begay. It really wasn’t, though. It was more about all the Code Talkers and WWII itself.
R: I agree. The book is part of a series called Biographies for Young Readers. I expected this to be a story, told mostly from Begay’s perspective, about his experiences. I was surprised when we learned just as much about several other Code Talkers as we did about Begay, and we heard very little about his personal experiences. I thought his voice was going to be a big part of the book, and it was not at all.
N: But the book provided a lot of information about Navajo culture and what the Code Talkers’ lives were like, before, during and after the war. I learned that the Navajo people were forbidden to use their own language. The young people were sent to boarding schools to learn English: “Some teachers used physical punishments, striking students who spoke Navajo or forcing them to stand in the corner for hours on end. Others put bars of foul-tasting soap in their mouths” (5). Years later, the Marine Corps decided that the Navajo language could be used as a code, and the original 29 Code Talkers spent months calling up memories of their native language and creating and memorizing a code based on the language they had been forced to forget.
N: After the War, the Code Talkers were not recognized as heroes and were sent back to their lives on the Reservation, where they had trouble finding work and even food.
R: That’s right. Many of the Code Talkers became advocates for their people and the Navajo Nation.
R: What else did you like about the book, as a member of the author’s target audience?
N: I really liked the set-up of the book. It included very detailed photographs and descriptive captions underneath. Each chapter included a “Did You Know?” section at the end, which provided obscure facts, information that I would never have guessed. The author included a nice timeline in the back that provided important dates from WWII and the history of the Code Talkers. The author also provided a glossary in the back to help define some potentially unfamiliar words that were bolded throughout the text.
R: I really liked the illustration of the Navajo Code Talkers G.I. Joe action figure.
N: I thought that was super cool, too. It actually speaks some of the Navajo code phrases that were used in the war. The action figure speaks in the voice of real Code Talker Sam Billison (85).
R: The action figure was released in 2001. It took a really long time for the work of the Code Talkers to be declassified and recognized for the important work they did. “By helping win the war, they also helped preserve the Navajo way of life and prove the value of preserving indigenous languages” (96).
Rebecca Biggio holds her Ph.D. in English from West Virginia University. She has taught writing and literature at the university level, volunteered as a Mentor for the Afghan Women’s Writing Project, and now homeschools her two children. She currently lives at Fort Knox, KY.
Noa Biggio is a 6th grade homeschool student. Noa is a Scout, swimmer, actor, avid reader, and writer of fiction. She currently lives at Fort Knox, KY.