Kii Yazhi is six years old when he is taken from his mother, from his land to go to boarding school governed by the United States. His uncle drives him there in a wagon and gives him this advice:
Little Boy, he said, Sister's first son, listen to me. You are not going to school for yourself. You are doing this for your family. To learn the ways of the bilagaanaa, the white people, is a good thing. Our Navajo language is sacred and beautiful. Yet all the laws of the United States, those laws that we now have to live by, they are in English. (8)Boarding school takes away their beautiful Navajo clothes, their symbolic long hair, their language, and even their names. Kii Yazhi becomes Ned Begay. His school journey begins and ends with disrespectful and mean teachers yet he survives and does well. He chooses to follow the rules and gets sent on to secondary school. He is 16 when war breaks out and he wants to enlist but waits until the next year with his parent's permission. The U.S. Marines have a special use for Navajo enlistees and he is able to be specially trained to send codes using the exact language he had been beaten for using at boarding school; a wonderful twist!
The story is told from Begay's memory as he shares with his grandchildren. Ned's journey shares such an overlooked part of history; one that I knew about but only on the barest surface. Bruchac inserts such wisdom among the awful horrors of boarding school and the war.
You know, grandchildren, for a long time even after the war, it was hard for me to have any good thoughts about the Japanese. What troubled me the most was the way they treated the native people of the islands they conquered. They believed only Japanese were real humans. Anyone else could be treated like a dog. Never forget, grandchildren, that we must always see all other people as human beings, worthy of respect. We must never forget, as the Japanese forgot, that all life is holy. (148)This is great historical non-fiction and I plan to use it this year with a boy's book club. They will love the war element and I will love that they are looking at it from a different angle.