Author Interview: Joseph Bruchac on Code Talker: A Novel About The Navajo Marines of World War II

Code Talker: A Novel About The Navajo Marines of World War II by Joseph Bruchac (Dial, 2005). From the catalog copy: “Throughout World War II, in the conflict fought against Japan, Navajo code talkers were a crucial part of the effort, sending messages back and forth in an unbreakable code that used their native language. They braved some of the heaviest fighting of the war, and with their code, they saved countless American lives. Yet their story remained classified for more than twenty years. But now Joseph Bruchac brings their stories to life for young adults through the riveting fictional tale of Ned Begay, a sixteen-year-old Navajo boy who becomes a code talker. His grueling journey is eye-opening and inspiring. This deeply affecting novel honors all of those young men, like Ned, who dared to serve, and it honors the culture and language of the Navajo Indians.”

What was your inspiration for creating this book?

I think the thing that inspired me most about the story of the Code Talkers was not that it was a war story or even (important as this aspect of it is) that it is a story that deals with American Indian life in the 20th century.

What most inspired me is that it is a story about the importance of native language and its survival against amazing odds. All the Navajos who became code talkers, using Navajo language in the service of the United States, were sent as children to government boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak anything other than English.

What was the timeline between spark and publication, and what were the major events along the way?

I first became aware of the the story of the Navajo Code talkers in the early 1970s. It fascinated me then for the reason I’ve already mentioned. I first thought about doing a story about this more than 20 years ago, but realized I didn’t know enough. Over the years I continued to learn, through reading, through friendships with numerous Navajo people (such as Shonto Begay, Luci Tapahonso, Harry Walters, and many others), through travel, more about Navajo history and culture.

I also was fortunate enough to meet a number of men who were code talkers–such as in Carl Gorman, who I met in 1996. In 1998 I was asked by the National Geographic Society to write a book about the Long Walk of the Navajos and the Trail of Tears of the Cherokees and I spent two years in research that resulted not only in Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty (National Geographic Books, 2000), but four other books–fiction and nonfiction–that deal with Navajo and Cherokee subjects.

In 2001 I was fortunate enough to spend some time with two more Code talkers, Jesse Samuel Smith and Keith Wilson, when we were all in Washington DC doing presentations for the first National Book Fair. Mr. Wilson was even kind enough to read my manuscript in first draft. I’d better stop here because I could go on for pages about the people who helped me along the way. You’ll find some of it in my acknowledgments In the back of Code Talker.

What were the challenges (literary, research, psychological, logistical) in bringing it to life?

The main challenge, I think, was having the patience to wait until I knew enough before I started trying to write the book–while also trying to be flexible and humble enough along the way to keep learning and be ready to correct any missteps I made when they were pointed out to me.

Fortunately, for my research for this story, this period is extensively documented and there are still many living WW II vets, both code talkers and other vets, who were willing and eager to help. Among them was my own uncle, Jim Smith, a marine who survived many of those terrible landings on such islands as Guam and Iwo Jima.

I should also point out that although this might be described as a book “about war” I tried very hard to neither glorify war nor demonize the enemy, but to see it all through Indian eyes, which is a very different way of seeing. War, as the Navajos and many of our other nations understand, injures the spirit. Those who have been to war, victorious or not, have been damaged by it and must find ways to regain their spiritual and emotional balance.