Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

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Title: UnbrokenBook Review - Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Author: Laura Hillenbrand

Publisher: Random House

Genre: Historical Non-Fiction, Biography, World War II

First Publication: 2010

Major Characters: Louie Zamperini, Russell Allen Phillips, Pete Zamperini, Stanley Pillsbury, Harry Brooks, Payton Jordan, Anthony Zamperini, Louise Zamperini, Francis McNamara (Mac), William Harris, Fred Garrett, Frank Tinker, Thorbjørn Christiansen, Sylvia Zamperini Flammer, Virginia Zamperini

Theme: Survival and Resilience, Dignity, Redemption and Forgiveness, War and Identity, Belief and Faith


Book Summary: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.


Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

In a way, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken is one of the memory reclamation projects. It tells the amazing survival story of Louise “Louie” Zamperini, a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator. In 1943, Louie’s plane crash-landed in the Pacific Ocean following mechanical difficulties. The crash killed eight of the eleven men onboard. Louie and his two crew-mates were set adrift on poorly-stocked life rafts. After 47 days, Louie and a surviving comrade were picked up by the Japanese near the Kwajalein Atoll. From there he was sent to one god-awful POW camp after another, struggling to survive against starvation, disease, and sadistic guards.

I’d never heard of Louie Zamperini before, but he’d earned a measure of fame that preceded Hillenbrand’s book. Before the war, Louie was a well-known miler, and participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (where he allegedly met Adolf Hitler). After his plane’s disappearance during World War II, the War Department determined that he had died. There was even an obituary. When the war ended, and Louie came back from the dead, he became a celebrity of sorts. He was the subject of newspaper articles and a documentary and wrote two memoirs. He ran a leg of the Olympic torch relay in 1998. For whatever reason, though, time had faded his name and his story. Now, with Hillenbrand’s book, Louie is likely to have a lasting place in World War II lore.

“The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.”

Hillenbrand, whose first book was the wonderful Seabiscuit, is an incredible storyteller. She writes with a vivid, adjective-filled prose, using novelistic adornments that immerse you into the book’s world. Hillenbrand is not only concerned with her main character, but in the context in which he operated. To that end, she broadens her focus to include detailed explanations on topics such as the Norden Bombsite (according to the author’s acknowledgment section, she actually found someone to show her one), the process of dehydration, and the training of Japanese soldiers. The book is admirably sourced, and a perusal of the end notes shows you that Hillenbrand clearly attempted to corroborate the main events of the narrative.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand begins with a brief look at Louie’s early childhood as an incorrigible juvenile delinquent. Louie’s life turned around when his brother turned him on to running. As Louie discovers his hidden talent, the book also quickens its pace, including an enjoyable trip to pre-war Berlin for the Olympics.

The real heart of the book is Louie’s odyssey from plane crash survivor to POW to free man. Hillenbrand’s account of Louie’s time on the raft is incredibly visceral. She chronicles the desperation and the ingenuity of the survivors, as they attempt to capture rain water, catch and eat raw fish, and avoid the sharks that are constantly circling their slowly-deflating rafts. At one point, they are even strafed by a Japanese plane.

“Without dignity, identity is erased. In its absence, men are defined not by themselves, but by their captors and the circumstances in which they are forced to live.”

After a journey of over a month, Louie’s raft comes within view of some islands. Joy quickly turns to terror as he is picked up by a Japanese patrol boat. The story changes from one of man-verses-nature to man-verses-man. And it is left to the reader to determine which of the two, man or nature, is more cruel or lethal.

Louis is first sent to the prison camp at Ofuna, which was run by the Japanese Navy. Strictly speaking, it was not a POW camp; rather, it was reserved for captives not labelled Prisoners of War. Though it was a trying place, things got much worse for Louie when he was shipped to the Omori POW camp, set on an island in Tokyo Bay. At Omori, Louie came to the attention of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, known to the POW’s as “the Bird.” Every story needs an antagonist, and Watanabe terrifyingly fits that bill. His behavior was so erratic that it left both the Japanese guards and the POWs pondering the cause: whether it was madness, calculation, or sadism. Watanabe’s unstable presence keeps the tension in Unbroken high, even though you know that ultimately Louie is going to make it home.

“Some men may be wired for optimism, others for doubt.”

Hillenbrand devotes the final 60-odd pages of Unbroken to Louie’s life after the war. In that time, Louie struggles with flashbacks, a drinking problem, and a troubled marriage. This section, however, is dealt with so quickly that you have barely started to recognize Louie’s PTSD before he is “saved” by Billy Graham and the Bible and embarks on a career as an inspirational speaker.

At its core, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is about humanity. It is about how much suffering a person can take, and yet survive. More specifically, it is about how much suffering a person can take and still – against all reason and hope – want to survive. There is something eminently noble about the human condition that in the face of the inevitability of doom we still fight to hold on.


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