A Navajo Indian veteran of World War II—part of the famous “code talkers” unit—feels torn between tradition and the white man’s world in this absorbing tale of fractured identities.
Frustrated with his aimless life on an economically depressed Arizona reservation, 28-year-old Jimmie Goodluck signs up with the Marine Corps in 1942 and gets slotted into an all-Navajo platoon. Already toughened by hardscrabble desert life, the Navajo recruits thrive in the military, one of the few American institutions that treats them with respect (except when they’re mistaken for Japanese spies). They’re especially valued because of their assignment to develop a code based on the Navajo language, virtually impossible to decipher, for rapid radio communications. In an earnestly gung-ho but rather sketchy narrative, the war takes Jimmie and his comrades from Guadalcanal to the bloodbath at Iwo Jima. His story deepens when he comes home in 1946, horizons expanded, to a reservation where little seems to have changed: Jobs are scarce, poverty deep, racism ubiquitous and government callous. (The uncompensated slaughter of Navajo livestock to prevent overgrazing is a particular sore point.) During peyote rituals, he sees mystic visions that seem to endorse his father’s bitter suspicion of the white man. Yet Jimmie is also drawn to other forces, including a progressive family of tribal leaders and the fetching sister of a slain comrade who wants to help her people in thoroughly modern ways. Stillman (A Match Made in Hell, 2005) paints a rich portrait of Navajo life with an impressive depth and detail, steeping the reader in vibrant folkways and grand, austere landscapes. But he also portrays a backward-looking, claustrophobic society seething with ancient vendettas that shape and limit his characters. The subtle, sensitive prose captures the psychological complexity of the people who live there as they walk a tightrope bridge between a warm but fading past and a future of hope and uncertainty.
A well-wrought, moving saga of reservation life in the throes of change that feels both painful and exhilarating.