Book Review: Laura Hillenbrand – Unbroken

If you think you’ve had a bad day you’ve got to read this book. Without a doubt Laura Hillenbrand detailed the most moving testament to the power of the human spirit possibly ever written. In this biography that read like a novel, the author related the remarkable life story of Louie Zamperini. Hillenbrand wrote, “From earliest childhood, Louie had regarded every limitation placed on him as a challenge to his wits, his resourcefulness, and his determination to rebel.” In the rest of her narrative she proceeded to show just how much these skills would aid Zamperini in later life.

Zamperini competed in the 5000 meter distance event in the 1936 Olympics. Without doubt a great accomplishment, but what really made him noteworthy came later. Following his time as an athlete he enlisted in the U. S. Army Air Force just before the Second World War. This decision would shape his entire future.

Hillenbrand related how Zamperini’s plane crashed in the Pacific, ironically, while searching for another downed plane. At this point the book became impossible to put down. Zamperini endured hardships that would defy reason had they not happened to him. Hillenbrand movingly described how Zamperini and two of his fellow airmen struggled to survive adrift in the South Pacific. At one point a Japanese plane even strafed him and his shipmates. I found my hands shaking as I read this passage.

Zamperini and one of the men on the raft survived for 47 days at sea. Hillenbrand had the following thoughts on how they did the miraculous.

Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil’s hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac’s resignation seemed to paralyze him, and the less he participated in the efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil’s optimism, and Mac’s hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.

…and then the real horror started. Louie and Phil landed in Japanese occupied territory where soldiers captured them. But it got even worse. Zamperini ended up getting transferred to a POW camp where a particularly sadistic guard—nicknamed “The Bird”—took a particular interest in harassing and torturing him. “The Bird” and his “fatal poison of irresponsible power” had a particular distain for Louie’s Olympic past. Hillenbrand wrote, “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.” But Zamperini and his fellow POWs decided, “If they were going to die in Japan, at least they could take a path that they and not their captors chose, declaring, in this last act of life, that they remained sovereign over their own souls.”

Hillenbrand’s did an outstanding job of researching the subject. She portrayed Zamperini’s ordeal in a compelling way without crossing into sensationalism. I really enjoyed how she interspersed stories of his family’s ordeal back in the U.S. with Zamperini’s tribulations. His relatives knew Louie’s plane crashed at sea, but they didn’t know what happened to him. At one point the military declared him Killed in Action. I thought incorporating the narrative about the family back home enhanced the emotional aspect of the story. Even though Louie’s relations weren’t brutalized by Japanese guards, they suffered almost as much as he did by not knowing his fate.

This is one of those things where due to the length of the book a reader knows that Zamperini survived. It demonstrated Hillenbrand’s proficiency as a writer that I found myself anxiously devouring every word to find out what happened next.

Like many people who experience a dreadful situation, Zamperini returned home to find solace in alcohol and resentment. “During the war, the Bird had been unwilling to let go of Louie; after the war, Louie was unable to let go of the Bird.” Hillenbrand also added, “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.”

Without question, the most interesting point in the book came near the end. Zamperini travelled to Japan in 1998 and wanted to meet the Bird. (The later had evaded authorities and lived in the open at the time.) In spite of the Bird’s refusal to see him, Zamperini still forgave him.

The only thing I could suggest for improving this story occurred in the section following Zamperini’s return him. He drank heavily, battled post traumatic stress disorder, and these factors put a tremendous strain on his marriage. His wife made him attend a religious revival meeting and then suddenly Zamperini gave up drinking and let go of his anger. For me this passage seemed a little cliché. Hillenbrand did note that while adrift at sea Zamperini made a promise to God that he’d live a righteous life if he survived. He recalled this after one of the services. I thought this section of the book too quick. Hillenbrand wrote, “At that moment, something shifted sweetly inside him. It was forgiveness, beautiful and effortless and complete. For Louie Zamperini, the war was over.” I learned a lot about Zamperini’s physical ordeals, I thought this would’ve been a great opportunity to analyze his dark night of the soul in more depth.

After reading Unbroken I felt guilty every time I told someone I had a “bad day.” It wouldn’t be possible to have a worse day than Louie Zamperini; and that could be from any period between his plane crashing and his learning to forgive his enemies. How did he do it? If I had to select one memorable line from the book to answer it would be the following:

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.

There is no greater testament to the power of human dignity than the story of Louie Zamperini. Mr. Zamperini celebrated his 97th birthday this past January 26th.

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