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Posts Tagged ‘Joseph Bruchac

Walking Two Worlds introduces young people to the inspiring true story of Ely Parker, A Native American who gained greatness in both the world of whites and the world of his Seneca people. This fictionalized biography by Joseph Bruchac successfully provided me with an understanding of a great American whom I hadn’t previously known. Perhaps due to it being at hi-lo readers, Walking Two Worlds also left me with a desire to know more of what it means to be torn between two cultures.

Fictionalized biographies are a subgenre of biographies. Materials can apparently be freely invented, scenes and conversations are imagined. Indeed, while the majority of the events in Walking Two Worlds are validated in biographical accounts, Bruchac clearly takes advantage of elements allowed in this subgenre. Foremost, he often relies on dialog to create interest in Ely’s story. In addition, feelings are accredited to characters that probably can’t be substantiated with primary or even secondary sources. Then there’s the accuracy of the events themselves. While biographies do talk about an incident in which Ely was ridiculed by British officers because of his poor grasp of English, one that hardened his resolve to learn the foreign language, I couldn’t find any which detail the controversial romance between him and Clara Williams. Students may find it an interesting activity to determine which events are factual, which are more loosely based in history, and which may have been imagined.

Hi-lo novels are intended for struggling readers. They’re written at a lower reading level, but intended to have high appeal through intense action and somewhat complex themes. In telling Ely Parker’s story of how he came to draft the terms of surrender that led to the end of the Civil War, Bruchac found the perfect hook for hi-low readers by revolving all actions around a dream his mother had about her son, one that stated he’d “become a white man as well as an Indian, with great learning; he’ll be a warrior for the palefaces; he will be a wise white man, but will never desert his Indian people….” What young person doesn’t like stories with prophecy and warriors? Moreover, the majority of youth will relate to the feeling of walking between two worlds, in that they spend their teens being torn between childhood and adulthood.

This dream his mom had remained with the family, forever impacting their decisions. After his initial schooling, Ely went to live with relatives in an Iroquois settlement in Ontario where he learned how to hunt, fish, and trap in the old ways. When satisfied with his learning, he returned home and within a short time received admission to Yates Academy, where he quickly mastered the English language and became noted for his oratorical abilities. While at Yates, Ely was often called upon by his tribal elders to represent the reservation in Washington regarding treaty disputes with the United States government. With each one of these decisions, Ely gradually learned to walk between two worlds, as he’d continue to do for the rest of his life.

While I appreciated learning about a great American whom I hadn’t previously known, I did find Walking Two Worlds of limited appeal to me. The characters seemed one-dimensional, rarely struggling with their choices, or making mistakes. In addition, I finished the fictionalized biography wishing Bruchac had spent more time exploring what the emotional side of what it means to walk two worlds. Yet I also realized that hi-lo novels are aimed at a different audience than myself, and so don’t want to get too hung up on what turned me off about Walking Two Worlds. The bottom line is that as an hi-lo fictionalized biography, Walking Two Worlds should have an appeal to its intended audience.

Cover of "Code Talker: A Novel About the ...

Cover via Amazon

Welcome to the third installment of Andy’s Sack o’ Books.

Code Talker By Joseph Bruchac

If foreign enemies invaded your land and killed your people and did everything they could to eradicate your culture, and then they were attacked by foreign enemies, whose side would you take?

Soon after Code Talkers begins, Pearl Harbor is attacked by the Japanese.  The Navajo Tribal Council immediately passes a special resolution declaring:

“…the Navajo Indians stand ready as they did in 1918, to aid and defend our government, and its institutions against all subversion and armed conflict and pledge our loyalty to the system which recognizes minority rights and a way of life that has placed us among the greatest people of our race.”

Remarkable.  This floors me. This resolution is passed at a time when Native American children are taken from their homes, their hair is cut short, and they are made to reject their language and their culture as being worthless.  This is the system that “recognizes minority rights”?  And yet Ned Begay, the fictional character at the center of Code Talkers, is ready to join the Marines and fight the Japanese.  And he’s only fourteen.

Ned is persistent and passionate, and his parents agree to let him join the Marines when he’s sixteen.  (This is still a year too young, but the Navajo don’t have birth certificates and so as long as a boy’s parents tell the recruiters that their son is old enough, that’s good enough for them.)

One of the many challenges during wartime is transmitting messages securely.  The Japanese were adept at breaking U.S. codes.  And so the military devised intricate encryption methods, but this resulted in messages that took hours to decode.  Enter the Navajo language.

The Navajo language was not the first language to be used for the transmission of wartime communications.  Other Native American languages were used in both world wars, and Basque was used in World War II.  But Navajo, it turned out, was especially effective.  According to Wikipedia, at the outbreak of World War II there were fewer than thirty non-Navajo who understood the language.  And the code that was devised – which, for example, used the Navajo word for “potato” for “grenade” and the Navajo words for “iron fish” for “submarine” – was confusing even to Navajos who weren’t a part of the code talker program.

Ned Begay is perfectly suited to be a code talker.  It is interesting that Bruchac did not choose to make Ned part of the “original 29” – the twenty-nine Navajo code talkers who developed the code.  My guess is that this decision was made so that the story wouldn’t get bogged down in cryptography, but rather could skip ahead to the use of the code in combat.  This was probably a wise choice.

When it comes to combat, Code Talkers has plenty.  Amazon says this book is for kids aged ten and above.  I poo-pooed parents who expressed concern over the gruesomeness of the skeleton man legend told of in Bruchac’s Skeleton Man; in the case of Code Talkers, I would tell parents that they should be sure their children are mature enough to handle graphic descriptions of the horrors of war.  Bruchac does not hold back.  His description of Japanese villagers who would rather die than be captured is especially chilling.

I learned a lot from this book.  I had heard of the code talkers before, of course, but I had never taken the time to learn anything about them.  I imagined a few Navajo in a big control room at “Military Headquarters,” receiving and sending messages.  But that really doesn’t make much sense, does it?  If a code talker is going to send a coded message, there has to be another Navajo on the other end to receive it.  And many of those “on the other end” were in the thick of battle, using their forty-pound radios as shields.

Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, declared: “Were it not for the Navajo, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”  But although the skill, bravery, passion, and strength of Native Americans was finally recognized through their contributions in World War II, I still find the situation somewhat sad.  Why did the Navajo language have to save our butts for anyone to think the Navajo culture was anything other than worthless?  It makes me think of the way our planet’s great biodiversity has become valued due to the promise it may hold for the development of new medicines.  But why should the natural world have to earn its keep?  Why isn’t it enough that nature is beautiful?  And so why wasn’t it enough that Native Americans are people, whose culture is as important to them as European Americans is to them?

Cover of "Skeleton Man"

Cover of Skeleton Man

Welcome to another installment of Andy’s Sack o’ Books.

Skeleton Man By Joseph Bruchac

Skeleton Man has a promising start: Molly’s parents disappear.  We are then treated to the ghoulish Native American legend of the Skeleton Man, and there is the seemingly real possibility that Molly’s uncle may just be that man of little flesh.  And then, sadly, nothing.  Pages and pages of nothing.

I am being harsh.  The skeleton man is to blame.  It’s such a great creepy legend that I was craving more of the same.  But while Molly is not happy to have been taken in by her heretofore unknown uncle, and while she is riddled with suspicion, not much happens.  Her uncle locks her in at night, and she never sees him eat, and he spends a lot of time in his shed, and he never lets her get a good look at him other than his bony hands.  That all sounds like something, but when it’s spread out over a hundred pages or more it makes for slow going.

The biggest problem with Skeleton Man is that, for some reason, Molly has no friends.  There is one teacher who she trusts, sometimes, for brief moments.  But she has no friends her own age.  A friend would have been of great benefit.  Yes, of benefit to Molly, but I was actually thinking of we readers.  Books really need to have interactions between characters.  Skeleton Man has only three characters other than Molly – the teacher, the uncle, and a dream rabbit—and Molly rarely spends any quality time with any of them.  The result is that the vast majority of the book is spent in Molly’s head.  We are treated to her suspicions over and over, but, alas, there is little we can do to help.  Have I mentioned that Molly really could have used a friend?

If you don’t want to know anything about the nature of Molly’s predicament, please ski p the rest of this paragraph.  I shouldn’t really say anything, but it was a big part of why I didn’t enjoy the book.  Far too many books and movies tease their audiences with the suggestion of supernatural happenings, and in the end retreat to the comfort of logical explanations.  I really hate that.  What exactly is wrong with fantasy?  Why should horror stories be entrenched in reality?  And so, despite the promising start to Skeleton Man, when all is said and done the story is your basic Scooby Doo mystery.  And even worse, when you find out what has really been happening, you realize that it simply does not make any sense.

You may have noticed that I did enjoy the skeleton man legend.   And so I would like to address what seems to be a common complaint about this book from certain hand-wringing parents—judging from the handful of negative reviews on Amazon.  These parents found the legend of skeleton man to be too gruesome, and they are adamant that it is not suitable for their precious snowflakes.  Nonsense.  Many European fairy tales are pretty darn gruesome too.  The big bad wolf eats Little Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, and then the woodsman chops the wolf in half to rescue her.  Or something like that, depending on which version you read.  And then there’s that witch that tries to bake Hansel and Gretel.  So for these parents to get all bent out of shape about the skeleton man legend is a bit ridiculous.  Why are “our” fairy tales suitable for children much younger than the audience at which Skeleton Man is aimed (and yes, I’m making an assumption that most of the complaining parents are of European decent), but this Native American fairy tale is not?  Okay, I’m probably being a little unfair.  It’s probably really more a matter of taking one’s own culture’s fairy tales for granted, but having to process other culture’s fairy tales from scratch.  Well, stop that.  Consider the nature of your own fairy tales before sounding the alarm about this one.

Joseph Bruchac, the author of Skeleton Man, is a prolific author of children’s books.  My wife has recommended another of his books to me, which I am looking forward to reading.  Skeleton Man is written well—I just found the story to be lacking in thrills and—well—logic.

At six-years-old, Kii Yazhi is sent to a mission school. As he struggles with the fear of leaving home, his mom tells him: “To learn the ways of the white people is a good thing. Our Navajo language is sacred and beautiful. Yet all the laws of the United States, these laws we now have to live by, they are in English.” The first six chapters of Code Talker, a historical novel by Joseph Bruchac that is set during the time of World War II, narrates a disturbing tale of how Navajo children like Kii Yazhi (who would become known as Ned Begay) are stripped of their native name, hair, clothes, language, and identity. If any of them are caught speaking their native language even to each other in private, they’re punished by having their mouth rigorously washed with a big bar of brown soap.

In April 1942, a fantastic irony happened. A message from the Navajo tribal chairman is sent around the reservation by shortwave radio, telling them that Navajo volunteers are needed for special war work.The rest of Code Talker is about how sixteen-year-old Ned Begay becomes part of the Marine Corps, braves some of the heaviest part of the war, and sends coded messages to aid in the conflict against Japan. Ned Begay’s experiences changed him and Code Talker will change you.

In contrast to Skeleton Man, Code Talker is much more deeply entrenched in Native American culture. For starters, in Code Talker, Bruchac takes on the persona of a Navajo grandfather telling his grandchildren about his World War II experiences. This allows Bruchac to explain war terms, without being condescending, that might be foreign to readers. As a reader who knows mostly about war through textbooks and movies, I appreciated the natural and clear explanations. Bruchac’s narrative choice also creates a distinct style: “Grandchildren, you asked about this medal of mine. There is much to be said about it. This small piece of medal holds a story that I was not allowed to speak for many winters.”

Another outstanding example of Native American culture is in the use of Navajo language itself. In the preface, the grandfather narrator shares many of the Navajo words for our English words. For example, the word “English” is translated “bilagaanaa”. The word for “United States of America” is “Nihama” and Our Mother: “When we Indians fought on those far off islands, we always kept the thought in our minds that we were defending our Mother, the sacred land that sustains us.” Unfortunately, the whites at the mission school displayed a hostile attitude towards the Navajo language: “Navajo is no good, no use at all! Only English will help you get ahead in this world.”

There are countless other ways that Native American culture shines through Code Talker. Because intercultural communication is the focus of my research paper, I’ll focus on examples of it.

Elementary School

  • As a sign of how much their family love them, the Navajo children dress in their finest clothing and jewelry to attend the mission school. Shortly after the children arrive at school, however, all these items are taken from them and sold to white people.
  • The white teachers expect students to look into their eyes to show attention. This takes time for the Navajo children to process, because Native Americans normally stare as a sign of attack not respect. Every time, I read about different cultures view eye contact, I think about often teachers have demanded a student to look at them. What message has this perhaps sent to some of our English Language Learners?
  • During the events of Code Talker, like the Nazarite of Biblical times, Native Americans would keep their hair long. To them, hair is a sacred thing and so cutting it would bring misfortune. Imagine the shock for the Navajo children when their hair is chopped short to make them “white”.
  • As if their name wasn’t good enough, each Navajo child receives a new name. The whites didn’t realize “biye” meant “son of” and so they translated it to “Begay”. That is apparently why now so many Navajo have the last family of Begay. How important is your family name to you?

High School

  • Even when Ned Begay doesn’t understand something, all he has to do was say “Yes, teacher!” and his white teachers would nod and smile. Sometimes they don’t even ask him to answer the question.
  • Because Ned reads, writes, and studies, teachers tell him, “You are almost as bright as a white child” or “I doubt that your average white student could have said it much better.” They also encourage him to speak up in class, but Ned rarely does because this would have call attention to himself or embarrass students who don’t do so well in school. Again, I think about how often teachers have required a quiet student to participate. What effect does this have on quiet students?
  • A former member of the tribal council, Hosteen Mitchell, talks with Ned about the similarities between Indian beliefs and Roman Catholic beliefs. When Ned’s family becomes Catholic that does not mean they forget the Holy People or the Navajo way. One of those ways includes a ceremony of blessing, which they perform before Ned leaves for the Marines to keep him safe when he goes into danger.
  • During one of their conversations, Hosteen comments, “Well, that Golden Rule and other things he did makes me think maybe Jesus was a Navajo. If any of those Christian white traders behaved the way their Bible tells them to live, they would all go broke.”

Marine Corp

  • When Navajo men go to the Marine Corp boot camp, they don’t have a beard. Even so, they’re expected to put soap on their face every morning and scrape away “an imaginary beard”.
  • The grandfather narrator suggests that it was harder for whites to accept abuse from drill sergeants than for the Navajo. “Being Indians, we were used to having white men shout at us and tell us we were worthless and stupid.”
  • In the white man’s Marine Corps, every Indian receives the same nickname: Chief. One of Ned’s friends finds a way to deal with it. When someone who doesn’t know Sam calls him “Chief,” he answers: “What, Mr. President?” As for Ned, he decides that his white friends don’t mean to insult him and so doesn’t want to hurt their feelings by correcting them.

Although there are tons more examples, I’m going to leave you with one of my favorite passages in Code Talker. Ned Begay has just been asked by another soldier to help him learn to read. This leads him to observe:

“All through Indian school, we had been taught that white men knew everything. That day, for the first time, I realized several things. The first was that the bilagaanaas are not born knowing everything. The second was that in many of the most important ways, white men are no different than Navajos. The third? That no matter who they are, people can always learn from one another.”

My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.

How would you rate this book?

One morning Molly wakes to discover her parents have disappeared. Social Services turns Molly over to the care of a great-uncle whom she has never heard of before, a twist which initially made me think of the Baudelaires in The Unfortunate Events. Then Molly starts having dreams about a skeleton man from an old Mohawk tale that her father used to tell her. Within those dreams might lay the answers to where her parents are and why this mysterious man has shown up now to claim himself as a relative. Skeleton Man by Joseph Bruchac is a deliciously creepy tale, in which nothing is the way it should be. At some point, I even began to wonder if Molly’s reality is what she thinks it to be. Skeleton Man made me want to read more of Joseph Bruchac’s books, of which there are plenty.

Now that I’ve tempted you to read Skeleton Man, let’s talk about its Native American foundation. On the acknowledgement page, Bruchac writes that he couldn’t have written the book without the lessons he’d been taught by tradition bearers. They helped him “understand even more deeply how different the strong women in our traditional American Indian Stories are from the dependent damsels of European folktales who hope for a prince to rescue them. Not only do our Native American heroines take care of their own rescues, they often save the men too!” I grew up loving our European American tales and yet have been surprised through critically evaluating them how dismal some of their messages for females.  My fifth-grade students just finished reading versions of Cinderella from across the world. Except for a Canadian Native tale, every single one of the stories depicted Cinderella as needing a prince to bring her happiness. Perhaps that’s why some of our European American fairy tales are being modernized. What negative messages have you learned from literature? What positive messages have you learned?

Otherwise, the most prevalent way that Native American culture is interwoven into Skeleton Man is through its references to old tales and to dreams.  There are the stories that Molly’s dad told her, which he’d heard growing up on the Mohawk Reserve of the Akwesasne on the Canadian side. One of Molly’s favorites is about the skeleton monster. Its mine too, despite of (or because of) how gruesome it is! The story reminds me of the fairy tale Hansel and Gretel. It also reminds of the Goosebump television series by R.L. Stine, which often start with kids sitting around a campfire and telling ghastly stories. What tales did you grow up with hearing from your families?

There are also the “aware” dreams, in which you know you are a dreamer. According to Mohawk tradition, these dreams can help you if you’re alert. Our European American culture used to place higher value on dreams, but these days we tend to put more stock in scientific explanations. The school counselor tells Molly that her problem may be a chemical one and wants to throw a prescription at it. Fortunately, she ignores that advice. How you feel about the way problems are often solved today?

There are other smaller references to Native American culture such as the explanations for Molly’s name and for storms. Last, while Molly finds help from American books and teachers, she also draws upon Mohawk wisdom for guidance: “It doesn’t matter if you are the hunted or the hunter. Sometimes the most important thing you can do in a tough situation is to keep quiet, breathe slowly, and think.”

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

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