This book's genre is as multifaceted as its main man… and its tone similarly does an awesome job of channeling Chester Nez's personality. Don't crack this book looking for a raunchy laugh riot—that's not the kind of guy Chester is—but if you want a read as good-hearted and fearless as Chester, look no further.
Chester Nez tells us that he's not one for cracking jokes. And we can see that in the serious tone of his narration. As he's about to land on Guadalcanal at the beginning of the book, he tells us:
I thought about what I was about to face, wondering whether I'd be one of the men to die. (1.36)
Those are some serious thoughts. Of course, it's no surprise that Chester adopts such a tone considering what he's talking about. This is a book about war, after all.
That said, his tone is also optimistic. He always tries to look on the bright side of things (we could learn a lesson or two about optimism from this guy). After he returns from the war, even though he's all traumatized by his experiences, he reflects on all the good he has:
I had a wife, a job, and a life that pleased me. My postmilitary life was in balance, and I knew I "walked in beauty." (19.19)
And finally, Chester's tone is also characterized by honor. He's a proud Marine and Navajo, after all. He tells us at the beginning of the book that:
Like other traditional Navajos, I'd always believed in the "Right Way." Balance must be found, not only between individuals, but between each person and his world. (1.3)
Throughout the book, Chester keeps referring to the "Right Way," and how important it is for him to live a life of balance. We'd give Chester an A++ when it comes to living the right way, personally.
Chester Nez was a guy who wore a ton of hats in his lifetime—goat herder, Marine, code-talker, artist, dad. Is it any wonder that a book about him straddles genre lines?
Code Talker is an autobiography because it tells the tale of Chester Nez's life. What makes it an autobiography, as opposed to a biography, is that it's narrated by Chester himself. We can also classify this book as a War Drama because it's about World War II, of course. It's also a coming-of-age story because it's about Chester's transition from childhood to adulthood. And finally, it can be considered Young Adult Literature because its language and theme are pretty easy for young readers to follow… without skimping on the awesome detail and fascinating history.
The full title of this book is pretty long: Code Talker: The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers of World War II. Phew. That's quite a mouthful.
The title tells us a few important things. First of all, it announces the book's theme: it's about the Navajo code talkers of World War II. The title also tells us that this is non-fiction, since the book is referred to as a "memoir." Finally, the title calls attention to what a unique document it is. It's the "first and only" memoir by one of the "original Navajo code talkers."
Chester ends the book by talking about the publication of Code Talker, and he says that his big hope is that the book will "keep the memory of the code talkers alive." (23.4). (Thankfully, by reading Code Talker, you're doing just that. Well done, Shmooper.)
He also tells us that even though his health his failing (he's had two legs amputated because of complications from diabetes), he still travels to do book signings and give speeches. He tells us that he still travels with his medicine bag in his pocket—like the one that he kept with him during the war in the Pacific, to keep him safe. His last words are "It's been a good life—so far" (23.7).
This ending provides closure for us readers in a number of ways. First of all, it tells us what Chester's been up to since writing the book. He's still going strong, sharing the story of the code talkers, despite his bad health. (We know that Chester Nez died in 2014, at the ripe old age of 93. Rest in peace, Chester.)
The reference to his medicine bag is also important because it shows us that, even in his old age, Chester is still very closely connected to his Navajo culture. This culture is at the center of his identity. Finally, his statement that "It's been a good life—so far" reflects his very optimistic outlook. We've mentioned that the narrative tone of this book is defined by optimism. Chester has lived through some tough times: the Great Livestock Massacre that destroyed his family's livestock, very traumatic experiences in World War II, the death of three children, and a divorce. But he still says that he's had a good life.
Don't we wish we were all as optimistic and positive as this guy?
The landscape of the southwest U.S.—beautiful deserts, arroyos, and a huge blue sky— is central to Code Talker. The Navajo Nation, after all, traces its origins to the southwest, to the area overlapping Arizona, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico. So even though you might hear "New Mexico" and think "Breaking Bad," forget everything you know about Walter White's Land of Enchantment and learn about the (way more peaceful and gorgeous) homeland of Chester Nez.
Big chunks of the book are set in this location: this was, after all, where Chester was born and went back to live after the war. Chester tells us about his childhood on the Checkerboard, an area near the Navajo reservation where Navajos, Anglos and others lived on their land—including his family. When he returns from the war, he settles in Albuquerque with his wife and kids.
Chester spends a lot of time evoking the landscape of the southwest. He pictures for us "the wide-open country" of the Checkerboard, with its "thousands of unfenced acres" and its "pinon, juniper, and oak trees [stretching out] in intermittent bands" (2.5).
Chester devotes so much time to describing this landscape because it's a landscape that's central to his identity as a Navajo. The Navajo are very attached to their land and have a deep respect for nature. After all, they've been living on this same land for thousands and thousands of years. By giving us such a detailed description of the southwest, Chester conveys to us just what an important part this breathtaking landscape plays in Navajo culture and identity.
The Pacific Islands are the second major setting in the memoir. These islands are the stage for the battle against the Japanese, and it's where Chester goes through his toughest times. Remember how we asked you to forget the gruesome landscape of Walter White's New Mexico in favor of Chester Nez's idyllic one? You basically want to do the reverse with the Pacific Islands. Forget your dreams of sunning yourself on a beach with a tropical flower in your hair—these islands are rough. They may be beautiful, but they're scarred by war.
When Chester returns to Guadalcanal after the island is taken by the Americans, he describes the "scattered foxholes, splintered trees, and the occasional broken-down tank" littering the once-beautiful island (15.1). When Chester and his partner Francis land on Peleliu, the site of the fiercest battle, he describes how the "bodies of American military dotted the sand" (16.14).
Chester shows us how these beautiful tropical paradises are transformed into scenes of hell during the war. We won't find any people sipping pina coladas on these beaches. What we will find are dead bodies, artillery shells, bombs, and foxholes. Chester's description of the devastation that takes place on the Pacific islands gives us a pretty grim picture of just how rough the battle between the Americans and the Japanese was during World War II.
This book is dedicated to the 420 World War II Navajo Marine code talkers—men who developed and implemented an unbreakable communications system that helped ensure the American defeat of the Japanese in the Pacific war.
When the war ended, other combatants were free to discuss their roles in the service and to receive recognition for their actions. But the Marines instructed us, the code talkers, to keep our accomplishments secret. We kept our own counsel, hiding our deeds from family, friends, and acquaintances. Our code was finally declassified in 1968, twenty-three years after the war's end.
This book may be my story, but it is written for all of these men.
May they and their loved ones walk in beauty.
What's up with this epigraph is it makes us go all misty-eyed, is what's up with this epigraph.
The epigraph of this book isn't a quotation from another text (which is what epigraphs usually are). It's a dedication that Chester gives to his fellow Navajo code talkers. What's important about this epigraph is that it sets Chester's story within the context of the stories of all of the Navajo code talkers. Even though the book is his story, it's "written for all of these men." In this way Chester frames his story as that of a group, and not a story of a single person or hero.
… as if you needed another reason to understand that Chester Nez is one of the best people ever.
Code Talker isn't such a tough read… but the subject matter is basically the toughest there is: war.
The language is simple and straightforward and for the most part the narrative is told in a linear way. Easy-peasy. But you know what wasn't straightforward or linear? WWII, that's what. Put your historian hat on for this one, and be prepared to learn facts aplenty.
Much like the tone of Code Talker, the writing style makes you feel as if you're in the same room chatting with Chester Nez. You wouldn't expect this kind of guy to be hyperbolic or speak in pompous metaphorical prose. Nope: this book, like Chester, is straight shooting.
The Code Talker's narrative style is pretty simple and direct. Chester doesn't use any big or fancy words (except for some complicated military terminology every now and again). He tells it like it is. We can see this simple and direct narrative style in the opening sentences of the book:
Nothing ever dried. My damp combat uniform chafed at the back of my neck. Water ran down my forehead into my eyes. (1.1)
The sentences are short and the words are simple. We don't have a hard time pinning down Chester's meaning.
This narrative style is not only easy to follow, but it also evokes Chester's Navajo culture. After all, Chester comes from a culture where stories are told orally (because the Navajo language isn't written). This means that stories are told in a simple, direct way—they have to be memorized in order to be passed down.
By using simple and direct language in Code Talker, Chester's narrative style echoes the oral story-telling style of his ancestors. In this way, the style is a good fit for the story—and for Chester's own identity as a Navajo—because it allows us not only to understand the story that he's telling, but also to understand something about the way stories are told in Navajo culture.
If you were to open Code Talker to a random page, you might find a mention of corn pollen. And you might be confused. Why corn pollen? Wait—pollen comes from flowers: is corn a flower?
Why's Chester always pinching bits of it from his medicine bag and touching it to his tongue? Does that taste good at all?
We can find the first example of this mysterious pollen in Chapter One, when Chester tells us:
I pinched some corn pollen from my medicine bag, touched my tongue, my head, and gestured to the east, south, west, and north. (1.33)
This is still strange to most non-Navajos out there, but it's getting clearer. We can tell that this is a ritual, and we can pretty well assume that it has something to do with protection. After all, Chester pinches the corn pollen in his medicine bag as he's about to land on Guadalcanal, right before his first big battle in the Pacific. You can bet Chester's Catholic buddies are making the sign of the cross right about now, and his Jewish pals are saying the Prayer of Protection.
The medicine bag with the corn pollen keeps popping up again and again in the book. At another point, Chester tells us:
Roy's medicine bag was different from mine, but they both had the same purpose: protection. No two medicine bags were identical, because their contents were personal, but one ingredient was always the same—bright yellow corn pollen. (12.24)
There we go: now we know for sure that, according to Navajo belief, a medicine bag with corn pollen provides protection. It's why Chester and Roy are so attached to their medicine bags during battle. What with bullets whizzing around everywhere, they need all the protection they can get.
In another part of the book, Chester explains to us how "[t]he pollen used…was collected at harvesttime, in September […] The pure pollen was stored in a jar or a flour sack and, usually, blessed by a medicine man. Medicine men went from house to house in the summer, blessing corn pollen. Only blessed pollen could be used in a medicine bag" (6.18).
The corn pollen, clearly, is a big part of Navajo culture. Why? Well, corn is a staple of Navajo cuisine. It's a food that the Navajos have been growing and eating for thousands of years. So the corn pollen represents sustenance: it's the reason the Navajos are able to survive and grow—you can compare this to a Christian prayer like The Lord's Prayer, which states "Give us this day, our daily bread" or how, in Muslim tradition, any bread dropped to the floor must be either brushed off or fed to the birds rather than wasted.
No wonder, then, that they see corn pollen as a blessing and use it for protection. With out it, they'd be kaput—we all need to eat.
The medicine bag with corn pollen represents Chester's link to his heritage. The fact that he keeps it with him at all times shows us that this guy respects the traditions and customs of his native culture. In fact, even as a very old man, Chester tells us that:
I still travel with my medicine bag in my pocket. (23.6)
So the medicine bag and the corn pollen suggest Chester's connection to his Navajo culture, and the way that he draws on that culture for strength and protection.
To those of you out there that don't speak Japanese, "Banzai" sounds really similar to "Bonsai." Don't mix these two up, though: "Bonsai" refers to those adorable and beautiful little trees, and "Banzai" refers to highly trained and highly terrifying suicide attackers.
We'll let Chester explain it to you:
Japanese suicide attackers whose name, Banzai, was shorthand for the phrase… "May the emperor live one thousand years." They struck on foot, at night. When we heard them yelling, "Banzai! Banzai!" we knew we would witness a suicide, unless they killed us first. (12.15)
The Banzai make several appearances in Code Talker. At another point in the book, Chester says that:
[t]he Banzai adhered to the Japanese doctrine of blind obedience to authority, even when it meant their own death. (12.102)
These guys don't mess around. They're ordered to go out there and kill a bunch of Americans, knowing that they will die doing it, and they obey orders. On the island of Guam, where Chester and Roy Begay are stationed for part of the war, there's a big Banzai attack:
"The Japanese attackers were better organized than previous Banzai had been." (15.21)
Thankfully, the Americans are prepared for them, and by morning, "dead Japanese lay everywhere, 3,500 of them" (15. 24).
That's an unbelievable number of dead bodies, guys.
In Code Talker, the Banzai represent the terrifying face of the Japanese enemy. These Japanese don't just want to kill Americans, they want to scare them. Chester tells us that "the Banzai terrified U.S. troops all through the war" (12.101), and the anticipation of a Banzai attack was always "awful, demoralizing" (12.15).
The Banzai show us what a frightening enemy the Americans are up against in the Pacific. The Banzai are out not only to kill, but to terrify. They're not afraid of death. And how can Chester and his buddies defeat an enemy that isn't afraid to die?
You might think, in a book that revolves around the terrors of war, that "fire" would be a horrifying and hellish sort of symbol. Nope. In fact, it's the exact opposite. It's all about feeling warm and fuzzy, both inside and out.
Much of Chester's family life takes place around a fire. When he's still just a little kid, he remembers sitting "by a snapping winter fire, surrounded by family" (3.1). This image gives us a sense of the warmth and community that Chester grew up in as a child, when Father and Grandmother told stories around the fire.
At another point in the book, Chester has a dream about a big gathering:
Neighbors, aunts, uncles, and cousins had come to stay for several days […] bringing blankets and food—fresh and dried meat and canned goods. There would be feasting and storytelling around the fire. (6.31)
Aww, good times. Like the memory of him sitting around the fire with his family as a child, this dream also evokes the warmth and community that Chester feels at home.
During these family gatherings, Chester remembers how "tales of current events were spun" "[w]ith everyone squatting around a big fire outdoors." (6.32) These recurring images of gatherings around a fire show us how Chester's family and community share their knowledge and stories with one another.
In Code Talker, the fire represents the way that Chester's family and community come together, as well as the bonds they share. The imagery of the fire also evokes a sense of safety and warmth—they're not roasting marshmallows over these particular fires, but these are the kind of totally cozy fires that would prompt Anglo families to break out the s'mores fixings and cocoa. This is a caring, loving community that Chester grows up in, and that warmth and safety are a big source of strength for Chester in the book—he draws on these fiery memories when he needs them most.
This is basically the big symbol in this book… which you could probably figure out because its title is, um, Code Talkers.
So what is this code? Well, Chester and his Navajo buddies go through Marine boot camp and they're locked in a room by a Marine officer and told that they're "to use [their] native language to devise an unbreakable code" (10.5). Talk about a challenge. We'd have thought boot camp was tough enough. Oh yeah, and remember that Chester is high-school aged at this point. The government is entrusting winning WWII to a dude who really should be working a part-time job and agonizing over the SATs.
The code is the big symbol in Code Talker. The code helps the Americans win the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. Within hours of being in operation in the war, the Navajos' "secret language…was indispensable" (12.66).
Can we give the code talkers a standing ovation? Like right now?
Again and again, Chester emphasizes what an important role the code plays in winning the war:
The Navajo code […] had allowed United States troops to move and attack, secure in the secrecy of their plans. (15.40)
The code is seen as "one of the most effective weapons the United States had utilized in fighting the Japanese" (21.1). And two presidents—Richard Nixon and George W. Bush—emphasize what an important part the code played in wining the war. Nixon says that the code helped "save the lives of countless men and women and sped the realization of peace for war-torn lands." (21.6). Bush says that the Navajo code "'turned the course of battle'" in the Pacific (21.7).
Yeah: two Presidents of the United States said that the Navajo code was pretty much crucial to winning WWII. It was mind-bogglingly important.
But the code isn't just a code. It's also a symbol in the book, representing many things. On one level, it represents the resourcefulness of the Marines. Those guys were up against a very tough enemy—the Japanese and their scary Banzai—but they managed to develop a weapon, the code, which helped to defeat the Japanese.
On another level, the code also represents the heroism of the Navajo Marines specifically. As George W. Bush says in his speech, the Navajos, "'in a desperate hour, gave their country a service only they could give'" (21.7). As the developers of the code, the Navajos are heroes who help save the country.
And on a third level, the code also represents the reconciliation between Chester's Navajo and Anglo cultures. After all, the Navajo Marines have to use both English and Navajo in coming up with the code. Chester tells us how he and his buddies:
[…] decided to use an English word […] to represent each letter of the English alphabet. Those words would then be translated into Navajo, and the Navajo word would represent the English letter. (10.13)
The code, in other words, allows the Navajo Marines to bring aspects of their dual identities together: Anglo and Navajo. In this way, the code bridges the gap between the two cultures.
In the symbol of "Fire," we asked you to reverse your expectations: you might expect "fire" to be terrifying, but in Code Talkers fires are warm and cozy symbols of family love. Do the same with "foxhole," but instead of thinking of widdle baby foxes in a cozy den think of… terrified Marines sleeping in mud-pits during wartime.
For much of his time in the Pacific, Chester is cooped up in a foxhole (a hole dug in the ground that soldiers take cover in to stay safe from enemy fire). It sure ain't comfortable in a foxhole. Chester can't stretch out. He can't stand, and there's usually at least one other person in the hole with him.
Chester's first battle duty is to dig foxholes along with Roy Begay. On his first night on Guadalcanal, Chester tells us that, "Roy and I crouched in our foxhole, side by side but facing in opposite directions […] The water crept nearly chest-high" (1.74)
Imagine spending weeks and weeks stuck in a hole like that in the ground. Doesn't sound very comfy, does it? The foxhole represents the harsh conditions that Chester and the other Marines have to live through during the war.
But on another level, the foxhole is symbolic of the friendships that Chester makes on the front. In New Caledonia, Chester remembers spending a night in a foxhole that's "three feet deep and four feet wide" (11. 41) with Roy Begay.
Ugh. That's cramped. But he also says:
I liked knowing Roy was there. Partnering with my roommate from Tuba City was good, when everything else was foreign. It was tough sleeping in a semisitting position. (11.41)
So even though it isn't very comfortable, the foxhole allows Chester to get close (and we mean really close) to his buddies. It's symbolic of how tight the Marines become.
This is Chester's story, 100%. He's our hero and our narrator—we get front-row seats to The Chester Show.
Code Talker is narrated by Chester, who is a key player in the development and the use of the secret Navajo code used to defeat the Japanese in the Pacific islands during World War II. As such, Chester is in the thick of things from the beginning, and so he can give us readers an inside view not only into the development of the code, but also into how it was used in the war against the Japanese.
For example, Chester fills us in on the early days of the development of the code. He tells us about how he and twenty-eight other Navajo Marines are locked into a room by Marine commanders and assigned the task of developing the code. He tells us:
On that first day, we decided to use an English word […] to represent each letter of the English alphabet. Those words would then be translated into Navajo, and the Navajo word would represent the English letter. (10.13)
Chester's first-person narration not only gives us insight into how the code was developed, it also gives us access to the grisly world of battle. Describing his landing on the island of Guadalcanal, Chester tells us about how:
Japanese artillery shells exploded around us. Noise roared, continuous, like the clamor of an enraged crowd. Sharp punctuations—individual explosions—added to the din. (1.60)
Through his first-person narration, in other words, we get a first-hand understanding of the war.
The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and the Americans are officially drawn into World War II. The Marines need men to join up. Will Chester answer the call? Of course he will. He's our man. Chester's recruitment by the Marines represents the first stage in the "The Quest" plot, because our hero receives a call, and he answers it.
Chester hops on a military ship, and is sent off to the Pacific. There, he and his buddies put the Navajo code to good use in a series of battles against the Japanese on the islands of Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Guam.
This trip to the Pacific islands—and the battles that follow—represent the "Journey" section of the "The Quest" plot. Our hero makes his way to a hostile terrain where his courage is tested.
Chester and his buddies are doing great in the Pacific. They're dodging bullets and passing messages around like pros. Chester thinks he's way overdue for some R&R (Rest and Relaxation). He's been working really hard, after all.
But no. The Americans still haven't won the battle against the Japanese, and he's shipped off to another island: Peleliu. This represents the "Arrival and Frustration" stage because, even though Chester's been working his butt off, he still can't get a break, let alone go home.
Peleliu is the big battle of the Pacific. It's the toughest battle, and the one that requires the greatest courage and endurance. The Japanese are well fortified on the island, they outnumber the Americans, and the terrain is really difficult.
Can Chester live up to the challenge? Not only does he live up to the challenge, he lives through it. He makes it out a-okay. The battle for Peleliu is the final and most difficult ordeal that Chester has to survive in the Pacific, and for this reason it can be considered "The Final Ordeal."
Finally! Chester gets his discharge. After that horrible battle on Peleliu, he seriously needs a break. And this is a big break: he gets to go home, for good. A few months after his return, the Americans defeat the Japanese, and the war comes to an end. Hurrah!
Chester settles down to start his own family. Chester's return to America represents him accomplishing "The Goal" because he's survived the war. He's done his duty defending his country and he's made it through alive. Now he can just chill a little bit.
What the heck is "in medias res"?
That's a fancy-shmancy Latin phrase meaning "into the middle of a narrative." It's a phrase used when a story starts right in the middle of action. And this, in fact, is how Code Talker starts: the "Exposition" actually throws us right into the heat of battle. Chester and his code-talking buddies are about to land on the island of Guadalcanal in the Pacific for their first battle against the Japanese.
So Code Talker doesn't have a conventional exposition that explains to us the hero's background, or where he's coming from and where's going. It just throws us right in there into the middle of the story… and then backs up.
Uh-oh. The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. This is bad bad news. It means World War II has come to America's backyard. Chester and his buddies, who are in high school in Tuba City, Arizona, have to decide whether they will join the Marines and defend their country or not.
This part of the book is the rising action because our hero faces a conflict and has to make a choice: risk his life for his country or stay in high school?
The battle for the island of Peleliu is the climactic battle in the book. It's the toughest battle. The Marines are outnumbered by the Japanese. The Japanese have built tunnels and caves all over the island, and they're camped out on mountains from which they can pick off the landing Americans.
Even though the Americans eventually win, many men die. The battle for Peleliu can be considered the climax of the book because it's the toughest and most dangerous battle—even though it's one battle out of many. It's the one where Chester's courage is really tested.
Phew! Finally, in 1945, our hero gets to return home to America. He's done his duty in the Pacific, and he's discharged. This can be considered the falling action of the book because Chester's done his served his tour and has made it through alive. With his return home, his life is no longer in danger.
Chester Nez and the "original twenty-nine" code talkers are awarded a gold medal by President George W. Bush in 2001. More than fifty years after their heroism in the Pacific, the code talkers finally get their dues.
The awarding of the gold medals to the code talkers and the celebrity that follows (everyone wants a piece of Chester after the award), is the resolution of the story. Our hero is rewarded for his courageous efforts… finally.