Review: Code Talker

“But I had no idea, even in my wildest dreams, that the very language those bilagdanaa teacher tried to erase – the way you wipe words from a blackboard – would one day be needed by important white men.” page 27

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Code Talker: A Novel About the Navajo Marines of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac.
Speak, Penguin Group, New York, 2005.
Historical fiction, 231 pages.
Lexile:  910L  .
AR Level:  6.4 (worth 9.0 points)  .

This novel follows fictional narrator Ned Begay through his life, focusing particularly on his experiences as a Navajo code talker.

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The framework of this story is that it is a story that a grandfather is telling to his grandchildren.  This idea is presented in the introduction and mentioned sporadically throughout the novel as well as in the final chapter.  I was a bit iffy about this device, but Bruchac used it beautifully.

Although the majority of this book deals with the fictional narrator’s time as a code talker, he begins the story when he went to boarding school, since learning English and being able to balance his own culture with the white American norms forced upon him have a lot of bearing on who he became and how he was able to navigate both worlds.

While the narrator is fictional, almost everything else is real, in particular the other code talkers mentioned are real historical figures, and all of the battles and troop movements mentioned are as they actually occurred.  This was one of my few quibbles with this book, it did occasionally give a little too much information.  On the other hand, a student particularly interested in WWII would probably soak it up.

If the world of diverse historical fiction is already lacking, the selection is even more meager when searching for diverse historical fiction to appeal to boys.  I know of only two authors consistently writing in this field – Christopher Paul Curtis and Joseph Bruchac (if you know of others, please leave a comment).

Speak is best known for YA fiction, sometimes quite intense reads.  So I was pleasantly surprised that this is a family-friendly read-aloud.  Of course there are moments that the story gets intense and the violence of WWII is represented, so as always, pre-read for younger or more sensitive children.  If you have very young listeners you may want to skip over some of the scenes involving death and injury.  But there was no explicit content and the story could be enjoyed by upper elementary school students up to high school.

There were a handful of areas where Bruchac laid on the facts and figures about WWII too heavily, but overall this was far more engaging than the last book we read by him.  Given the unexpected violence in the last book, this one was much less surprising since it actually took place in a war.  I’m looking forward to reading other historical fiction he’s written.  This book even had a good amount about Ira Hayes, which was great since we’d just learned about him another way.

There are some serious injuries and deaths, as would be expected in a novel about the action in WWII.  Ned also faces frequent bigotry and sometimes outright abuse due to his ethnicity.  While Bruchac definitely includes those moments, he doesn’t focus on the violence.  Only one of the descriptions felt too gruesome for me.  (I’m sure it was accurate, just a little more than I would want to read aloud around the little ones.)

The final section includes several pages on Navajo history, the code talkers in particular, and how Bruchac (who is Abenaki, not Navajo) came to write this book.  I appreciated that he gave thanks to the Navajo elders and code talkers who shared their stories with him but took full responsibility for any errors in the book.

I’m happy to recommend this book and look forward to reading more of Bruchac’s historical fiction.

Review: Tapenum’s Day

“The Wampanoag culture is a living culture. Today there are many Wampanoag people living in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.” p. 37

Tapenum’s Day: A Wampanoag Indian Boy in Pilgrim Times by Kate Waters, Photographs by Russ Kendall.
Scholastic, New York, 1996.
Informative fiction, 40 pages.
Lexile:  680L  .
AR Level:  4.6 (worth 0.5 points)  .

The story of a Wampanoag boy in the 1620s.  While others in this series follow an imaginary day in the life of a recorded person, this book aims to show what daily indigenous life was like at the time and place of the Plimoth settlement.

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Tapenum’s Day by Kate Waters, photographed by Russ Kendall.

It was with great relief that I found and read this book.  Diverse books about Thanksgiving are in short supply, and it is one of the holidays always in demand from both families and teachers.

Before reading it, however, I was sorely disappointed in many of the reviews.  Quite a few people made basic errors despite having supposedly read the book.  Some confused the time period, assuming it takes place in the present day.  Others confused the location, assuming that this one story about the Wampanoag people in what is now Massachusetts/Rhode Island represents an entire continent of indigenous peoples.

The errors in reviewing made it very difficult to determine if I should buy this, so to clarify – this is very clearly a book about Wampanoag life in the 1620s.  The one confusion I could see is that a specific date is not given on the title page.  However there are four pages of notes outlining the historical and geographical setting so even a cursory glance should clarify when and where this book is set.

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Review: Giving Thanks

“To be a human being is an honor, and we offer thanksgiving for all the gifts of life.” page 4

Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp, illustrate by Erwin Printup, Jr.
My edition Scholastic, New York, 1997, originally published by Lee and Low, 1995.
Picture book, 24 pages.
Lexile:  AD520L  ( What does AD mean in Lexile? )
AR Level:  3.3 (worth 0.5 points)  .
NOTE: There is another book by the same title but subtitled “The 1621 Harvest Feast.”

A children’s book adaptation of the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address by Mohawk Chief Jake Swamp.

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This is one of those books that gives the lie to publishers who say they can’t find qualified Native authors and illustrators.  Already back in 1995, Lee and Low had Cayuga/Tuscarora painter Erwin Printup, who not only has a degree in fine arts, but also provides gorgeous, culturally appropriate illustrations for this title.  In fact, we were so taken with this book that I went searching for other children’s books illustrated by Printup.  But it seems that he was also underemployed, because all I found was a few anthologies he was included in.

While this is a handy alternative for librarians to give parents and teachers who insist on Thanksgiving books, truly this book could be read at any time of year.  As Swamp explains in his can’t-miss author’s note, not only is the Thanksgiving Address read at every gathering of the Six Nations, it’s also taught to children as a morning thank you.

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Web: Wampanoag

An apology, and a few sites to check out.

First, I want to apologize.  I’ve written in the past about the unique Deaf culture that formed on what is known to many people as Martha’s Vineyard, and even reviewed a book about it.  But it never occurred to me to also inform about the indigenous peoples of the area.

I’m sorry for my thoughtless erasure, and would like to point all my readers whether hearing, HH, or Deaf, to this website which will tell you a little more about some of the specific places on the island, their names and significance to the Wampanoag people.  Or this page tells more about the Aquinnah Wampanoag who lived on the island then and still live there today.

For young people, here is a video from Scholastic with some modern Wampanoag girls at the heritage site:

Here is another brief introduction for kids.  These resources are produced from the Wampanoag Homesite associated with Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts.

The Wampanoag people are typically only mentioned by the rest of the country around Thanksgiving, and The Wampanoag Side of the Tale gives one woman’s opinions on the real story of the holiday.

Review: The Underground Railroad

“His patients believed they were being treated for blood ailments. The tonics the hospital administered, however, were merely sugar water.” p. 124

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.
Anchor Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2016.
Adult fiction, 313 pages.
Lexile:  890L  .
AR Level: not yet leveled

Cora is a young woman on a Georgia plantation when a new arrival asks her to run away with him.  Only one slave has ever successfully escaped the Randall plantation, but Caesar believes that if they run together, they’ll make it to the elusive Underground Railroad.

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It took me a good while to get to this one.  I’d seen a lot of mixed reviews, and in general I’m not a fan of magical realism (which is what most people were calling this).  Finally I saw this at Target and decided to use it as one of my targetpicks selections.

Going into the read with low expectations definitely helped this novel blow me away.  It’s a very difficult book to classify.  Whitehead uses elements of many different genres, including historical fiction, adventure, science fiction, magical realism, and realistic fiction.

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Web: Osage

Earlier I posted a review of a true crime book about the murders of Osage during their decades of intense wealth.  Here are some links for those interested in learning more, although I will warn that some give away the story in the book, so you may wish to read the book before clicking some of these links.

The Osage Nation Museum is a great place to start and to visit if you are ever in the area.  It’s part of the larger Osage Nation website which has a wealth of information and where you can also sign up for free Osage language lessons.

This photoessay contains many (but not all) of the photographs found in the book.  This NPR interview with the author also tells quite a bit of the story, or you can read the first chapter on the New York Times website.

“It’s the story of an incredibly sinister crime — a true racial injustice. I did not want this to be simply a cataloging of the dead. And I didn’t want it to be cursory. For the most part, when these murders had been written about — if they were mentioned at all — there was no sense of who these people were, or what their lives were like. You never got close to their consciousness or their souls. That’s what I set out to do.”

^ In this interview, Grann talks about how difficult it was for him to write a purely historical book (his others seem to have been straight true crime or adventure books), as well as the challenge of confronting the evil of widespread racism and systematic murder.

He also did an interview with Indian Country Today.

In an unrelated but interesting Osage story, a family oral history was used to rediscover and eventually recover ten busts from 100 years ago that were lost at the Smithsonian, which can now be see at the museum linked above.

 

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon

“Mollie was one of the last people to see Anna before she vanished.” p. 8

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann.
Vintage Books, Penguin Random House, New York, 2017.  Originally published Doubleday, 2016.
Nonfiction, 377 pages including notes and bibliography.
Lexile:  1160L  .
AR Level:  8.8 (worth 14.0 points)  .

Through an unusual turn of events, in the 1920s the Osage people became astonishingly rich.  Unable to stomach an autonomous American Indian tribe, the United States government appointed “guardians” who would watch over their every purchase, and white settlers moved in to the area with ridiculously overpriced goods and services.  And then came the murders.  Many were focused around one family, and the FBI eventually got involved in their case.

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Normally I read books about more Northern tribes because that’s where we live and travel most often, but after passing through Oklahoma, the Osage interested me.  If you are looking for a book about the Osage, this one keeps coming up, so when I saw it at Target I decided to give it a try.

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