Friday, December 3, 2010


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand, Random House,November 2010

Unbroken has a hero for the ages, adventures so fantastic as to be unbelievable, unforgettable characters, life affirming redemption and forgiveness all written in the most elegant readable prose. Read this book!

Unbroken is the amazing story of Louie Zamperini, a first generation American. Louie grows up in pre WWII California as the local juvenile delinquent always in some type of minor trouble. He leaves his troubled life and with help from his brother trains into a world class runner, who in an incredibly short time wins a spot on the 1936 American Olympic team, competes in Berlin, meets Hitler and steals Nazi souvenirs! Louie joins the Army Air Force (AAF) washes out of pilot training and becomes a bombardier. Louie survives a Japanese attack on his base, and an air mission where his plane is incredibly disabled but returns to base. Louie is downed in the Pacific and with his pilot and another crewman drifts 2000 miles in the Pacific on a disintegrating raft. During this time they are strafed by enemy planes, fight off sharks that attack them in the raft, are scorched by the relentless sun and overcome debilitating hunger and thirst during their 47 day ordeal. This story could end right here and it would be a worthwhile inspiring story but the suffering is just beginning. Louie is captured by the Japanese and over the next two years is shuffled through a number of POW camps where the prisoner treatment is heartbreaking.
This is an incredible book; Laura Hillenbrand has taken an iconic story and turned it into a gripping page turner. I read the book in two days, I couldn’t put it down. She has integrated the story of the Pacific airmen into Louie’s narrative in a seamless way. The extensive research that served Hillenbrand so well in Seabiscuit is here also. It adds to the power of this story. Her sources for Louie’s early life allow her to give an in depth portrait of Louie as a young man. So when the war starts we know him well. Her telling of his ordeal is masterful, it isn’t really clear to me how she is capable of bringing such drama to a known story but it was there for me.

The account of the POW experience from Louie and other prisoners is deeply disturbing, what these men endured and lived through was awful. Hillenbrand makes the point that the loss of dignity that they endured was more debilitating than the physical torture. Make no mistake the physical torture was appalling. While a small number of Japanese helped the POWs many more were hostile. Hillenbrand points out that the death rate among Pacific POWs was between 25-37% while in Europe it was less than 2%. Death was never far from them. As the POWs received news of the coming allied victory most believed the Japanese would execute the POWs when Japan lost the war. This actually happened to the POWs on Wake Island and in some other camps. The POWs incredible spirit and hope in the face of such adversity was an inspiring theme in this story.

{SPOILERS in this paragraph}  Hillenbrand deals with Louie’s life after the war. He was suffering from post traumatic stress disorder but that diagnosis was unknown then. He sinks into alcoholism and self destructive behavior as his personal life disintegrates. Of all he endured I found this part most disheartening. Hillenbrand points out that the majority of Pacific POWs came home with life altering physical and mental problems. It seemed so unfair after all they endured not to get a happy ending. Fortunately Louie, ever the strong soul, has a Christian conversion and rights his life. In an extraordinary act Louie returns to Japan meets with his guards and forgives them! I did not have the same reaction and was unhappy that his chief torturer, “the Bird” was able to live out his life without paying for his cruelty and murderous behavior. Louie’s true revenge is a life well lived, he continues in good health today at the age of 94!

As I finish this review I’ve thought of six other things about this book worthy of discussion but don’t want to make the review too long. Run to your favorite bookstore and get this book! It has a hero for the ages, adventures so fantastic as to be unbelievable, unforgettable characters, life affirming redemption and forgiveness all written in the most elegant readable prose.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.


Rebecca Glenn said...

Thank you for submitting this review to the Book Review Blog Carnival. Edition #58 will be posted tomorrow on The Book Frog. Don't forget to check it out!

DWD said...

This really was a good book, wasn't it? I have recommended it to so many people. Sometimes the hype is deserved...