Monday, May 28, 2012

Book Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

I loved Seabiscuit and I heard wonderful things about Unbroken but hadn't had a chance to read it until now. It's a perfect coincidence that I finished it the day before Memorial Day! I really loved it and couldn't put it down.

Louie Zamperini was a hoodlum as a kid and luckily when he got to his teen years, his older brother Pete helped him channel his energy so instead of running from the cops and the neighbors, he started running track. He won a track scholarship to college and went to the 1936 Olympics, even snapping a photo of Hitler while he was there. He was easily on the way to breaking the 4-minute mile years earlier than it actually was broken, when WWII broke out and he went to war as a bombadier. He actually had a lot of fun goofing around with the other soldiers while training and in their first bombing runs, until of course the day his plane went down. Louie was one of three survivors drifting West, into Japanese-controlled waters with no food, little water, in two small and disintegrating rafts for weeks and weeks.

One difficult thing about nonfiction is maintaining suspense when the outcome is known, but Ms. Hillenbrand mastered that in Seabiscuit and uses her skill well here too. You know that Louie survives, so that part isn't where the suspense comes in - but you don't know how bad things will get and how he will survive. So it's not a spoiler for me to tell you he survives the raft at sea - setting a new record while he was at it - but he is rescued by the Japanese at the height of the war, and things go downhill from there.

The stories are nearly unbelievable and luckily this is an example of when truth is stranger than fiction. Ms. Hillenbrand has done extensive research to back up everything with is amply evident in her endnotes, but also simply in instances where she says things like that the reports of how much weight Louie lost at sea vary in different media and gives you all 3 reported weights. It is very fortunate she found this man with such an amazing backstory, a horrific wartime experience, a wonderful memory, and a long life. At the end, I was expecting the last chapter and the Afterward to be just simple wrap-ups, but I ended up loving those chapters the most! After the war his life didn't just suddenly turn into "Leave it to Beaver" and I loved how Ms. Hillenbrand didn't just drop the story at the end of the war but went on to show the war's impact after the fact ("post-traumatic stress disorder" existed long before we'd invented the phrase) and how Louie did - and didn't - cope with it. That was almost more inspiring to me than how he survived the raft and being a POW.

Ms. Hillenbrand's writing is smooth and compelling and easy to read. She does have a perfect subject in Louie, but she brings so much to the story, in the fluidity and ease that makes reading a joy, not a chore. The opening page is so gripping, I read it aloud to my BF. The other characters were well-developed and three-dimensional (even though many of them she was unfortunately not able to meet, as they are not still alive), the how of the survival was quite tense, and you count down to the fall of 1945, knowing that this will end, even though the POWs do not share this knowledge that there will be a finite and successful end to their trauma. This brilliantly written book was likely many a Father's Day present last June and should be again (it's just recently in paperback.)

I bought this book at my local independent bookstore.


Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

Best. Book. Ever.

Ellie said...

This was a book group read last year and a few of us thought it was embellished, perhaps not by Hillenbrand but Louie himself.

Anonymous said...

Ms. Seigfried missed the point; the redemption he conceded to the torturers that allowed him to recover was tantamount to a peaceful life thereon. Christianity