Review: The Unbreakable Code

The Unbreakable Code, written by Sara Hoagland Hunter and illustrated by Julia Miner.

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About:In World War II, the Americans needed a code that couldn’t be broken by the Japanese – and they recruited a group of Navaho to develop one. This book tells the story of the Navajo code talkers, put together out of interviews with many of the surviving code talkers, and framed in fiction as a grandfather telling his grandson not to be afraid to move to a new home. It’s an important part of American and WWII history, a discussion of how codes, languages and alphabets intertwine, and a clear portrait of what advantages cultural differences can bring to a multicultural society. It also tells clearly and effectively of the sadnesses of war, the punishments applied to Native Americans who tried to hold onto their culture and some of the barriers they faced to acceptance. The reading level is quite high and the themes quite strong, so I’d put this book at at age level of say 5-10 years old, despite it being a picture book with stunning illustrations.

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“The code had to be simple and fast. We would have only one chance to send each message. After that, the Japanese would be tracing our location to bomb us or trying to record the code.”

Good things:

  • Positive indigenous contribution to society
  • Central characters are Native American
  • War descriptions effective but without undue emphasis on the terrible
  • Places the code talkers in cultural and historical context
  • Talks about language and codes and how the code was developed
  • Promotes the use and value of indigenous language
  • Includes the basic code used by the code talkers
  • Beautiful oil painting illustrations
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Gods’ eyes

What: The “gods’ eyes” that were a Big Craft Thing to make when I was a kid.

How: Kid 3 and Kid 5 went out into the garden with instructions to find two sticks, reasonably straight, “about yay long”. I had to assist them a little with assessing whether a given stick was strong enough or too thin or thick – understanding the relationship between “width” (diameter) and area of cross-section is a long way off – but they could do length fine. I got out my box of miscellaneous wool and let the kids choose an initial colour. We crossed the sticks, I tied on the first end of the wool and showed them how you go around a stick, then on to the next and around that, and keep going. When you get to the end of a piece of wool, pick a new colour and tie a new length on.

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Kid 5’s piece, decorated to be “a compass”, with mine and Kid 3’s in the background. Hanging was just a matter of wrapping a string around the same way.

You’ll find better instructions than mine online. What’s more important for you to know is that this was *hard* for the kids. Kid 5 is spatially-challenged anyway, all directions are identical, subjective and meaningless, and Kid 3 is a fiddle-fingers who can’t *stop* turning things around in their fingers. Even though the steps of a Gods’ Eye are simple, they rely on you doing them the same way consistently over and over again. So I spent a lot of time droning the rhythm at the kids – over, around, over again, across to the next – and helping them remember which way they were going so they didn’t unwind their hard-won earlier work or just do the same two spokes over and over again, or switch from looping over to looping under, and so on. Holding the wool at the correct tension was also tricky – it’s a skill you expect a kid to maybe begin to learn at this age, but my two hadn’t learnt it yet. The idea that you had to keep making sure the wool was tight enough and not hanging floppy every time you looped it was a bit tricky. But, they got there in the end. Kid 5 did quite a credible effort. Kid 3 did sufficiently well for them to be proud of their work, and enjoyed it enough that nine months later (as a kid 4) when they had to take something they’d made to school for class “news”, they remembered the Gods Eyes and asked to make a new one to take along. And that effort was distinctly better and easier.

Extras: On the face of it, this activity is just about manual dexterity, manipulating sticks and wool in space, the textures of wool and wood, feeling and holding the tensions steady – getting a feel (literally!) for textiles. It’s the sort of thing you do before you go onto knitting because it’s so much bigger in scale than little needles. A related activity would be back-and-forth weaving on simple looms.

Where this activity jumps into the extras though is in cultural awareness and in religion. Gods eyes were a big thing in the 80s. When Kid 4 asked to make one for school I went looking them up to see if there was another name for them, because as a non-Christian family in a very multicultural school I didn’t want to have to defend Christianity in a discussion about religious materials. Then I realised that their actual name was Ojo de Dios, they weren’t originally Christian, and that the 80s had blithely appropriated a really interesting cultural artefact for the sake of something “pretty” (how unusual /sarcasm/). At any rate, I attempted to teach Kid 4 the Spanish name and that they came from Mexico for the “news bulletin”. So depending on the age of your kids, going at some level into the cultural history of these is quite interesting.

From a pagan and religion POV, I quite like them. They are similar to Buddhist prayer flags or prayer wheels – physical prayers activated by movement. There are some conceptual similarities to the little icons of saints that people used to carry or have on their mantelpiece (and many still do). Making them is a lot like walking the medieval labyrinths, those pilgrimage substitutes, with the same kind of meditative repetition. As a mindfulness activity it’s quite fun too. I will bring these back into my pagan teaching at some point, when we discuss focus objects and how people use objects (and their making) to focus magic or prayer, and also as part of the ideas of sacred landscape and conscious journeying. They’ll also no doubt be a good example of the “cultural trappings” of magic, because the colours had such important meanings in a long-ago-far-away culture but now we might assign quite different meanings and have access to a different range of colours so the “meaning” or “intent” is not a universal constant.