Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

You are unlikely to ever forget this book. 

I could spend this entire post heaping superlatives on Unbroken and be justified in doing so. It is enthralling and inspiring but it is also frightening, painful, and draining. Author Hillenbrand already dazzled me with Seabiscuit, a book I snobbishly dismissed many years ago ("A book about an old racehorse? Bah!") Then I read it and couldn't believe how moved I was by the story of a racehorse, a jockey, a trainer and an owner. It was not only the story but how well it was told that made me a fervent believer in her abilities, so much so that I will read whatever she writes.

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American born in California when it was still teeming with orange groves and wide open spaces.  He was an average kid with a hyper streak who then became something of a delinquent, taking to fighting, petty crimes, trouble in school, the whole megillah. In his teens, his brother works to channel Louie's vast energies into running track at which he excels, setting records and ultimately winning a spot on the 1936 U. S. Olympic team where he competes in Hitler's Berlin. Louie doesn't medal but is well within range of breaking the four minute mile and sets his sites on the 1940 Olympics (it would be another eighteen years before Roger Bannister achieved the feat). The rub? Hitler invades Poland in 1939 and you know the rest.

Louie enlists and becomes a bombardier on a B-24 that is rife with problems and this is really where Unbroken begins. In 1943, his plane goes down in the Pacific and Louie is one of three survivors. For the next 47 days, he and his two crew mates drift helplessly for almost 2000 miles. They run out of supplies, the rafts are slowly disintegrating from the salt water, and sharks circle them mercilessly, often rubbing their dorsal fins against the mens' backs from beneath the raft. One of them dies before they come aground in the Marshall Islands where they are taken prisoner by the Japanese. The Army Air Corps had long since stopped searching. As Art Spiegelman wrote in Maus, "And here my troubles began..."

For the next two years, Louie was in a series of POW camps, each worse than the last. Since we rebuilt Japan after the war and they have become our friends, we seem to have forgotten how brutal they were during WWII. That comes to an abrupt halt as you read about the endless cruelties GI's suffered and Louie, especially. Because he was famous back in the States, he was repeatedly singled out for additional punishment. This portion of the book is difficult to read and ultimately exhausting which is not to say it is boring or less well-written. Reading about the ceaseless, senseless brutality made me squirm. It brought me down and it made me yearn for the story to be over. However, it wasn't until I finished the book that I realized this was done on purpose by Hillenbrand. By continually cataloging the pain and humiliation, the author gives the reader the tiniest sense of what Zamperini must have endured, the sense that no end was in sight from the physical and psychological torment, that no one could stop the suffering. 

Without spoiling absolutely everything, I will leave it to you to pick up this remarkable book, a testament to endurance, hope and forgiveness. Once you have read it (and not before), check out the CBS Sunday Morning piece about Louie and the author. You can find it on YouTube.

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