ISBN 978-0-8075-0007-1 $16.99
Reviewed from galleys R Gr. 2–4
In this picture book biography, Chester Nez was only eight when he was sent to the Fort Defiance boarding school for Navajo children, where they were punished for speaking Navajo and told to focus on living in the white man’s world. When World War II broke out, however, that deprecated language was suddenly valuable as an unbreakable code (“Chester was proud he had never given up speaking Navajo”), and Navajos were sought to join the Marines. As one of the code talkers, Nez worked on the Pacific front, where the code helped the Allies defeat the Japanese; however, the horrors of battle and the need for sustained secrecy about his role left their mark on him until his family arranged a traditional Enemy Way ceremony that “restored Chester to the trail of beauty and the Right Way.” Bruchac takes the now-familiar information about the code talkers and gives it an illuminating personal and cultural frame, emphasizing the fact that it was Nez’s committed connection to his heritage that served both his country and, throughout his life, himself. The prose is spare yet thoughtfully chosen, compacting important ideas into accessible language, and the details about the creation of the code are intriguing. Moody, somber-toned art emphasizes texture in expressionistic brushstrokes and grainy paper surfaces; while the figures are sometimes awkward, there’s an iconic flavor in the softly blurred images. This has obvious use as a war story, but it’s also a compelling account of how a national effort is made stronger by diversity and how Nez forged a satisfying self-identity in the face of racism. End matter includes an author’s note detailing Chester Nez’s post-war life, a portion of the Navajo Code complete with translation, and a timeline.