Monday, May 23, 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Available from Amazon
I know this guy who never reads fiction. His reason is basically that there are too many amazing true stories in the world to waste any time with made-up ones. Of course, he's a historian.

But I sympathize with his rationale. And Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is a case in point. It's a true story that no fiction writer could ever have gotten away with imagining. It's just too incredible.

Unbroken tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a juvenile-delinquent-turned-Olympic-athlete who becomes a bombardier in World War II only to have his B-24 crash into the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini and two of his fellow crewmen survive the crash to spend weeks drifting in inflatable life-rafts, enduring exposure, thirst, starvation, predation from sharks, and attacks from a Japanese bomber.

And that's just the first half of the book! What follows is an odyssey that spans the length of World War II and beyond.

Zamperini checks out his bullet-riddled B-24 after a bombing raid on Nauru.
I'll try not to spoil any more the story, but suffice it to say that Zamperini's tale completely disproves F. Scott Fitzgerald's quip that "there are no second acts in American lives." Indeed, as Zamperini himself exemplifies, one gets as many chances as one takes.

Hillenbrand writes with a dramatic, even cinematic, style that would beg credulity if it weren't for her fastidious notations. I feel sure that, as with her first book, Seabiscuit, a movie adaptation will be made. But what movie could capture every turn that Unbroken takes? It would have to be a long miniseries to do justice to the epic sweep of this book.

And Unbroken doesn't just harken back to the heyday of our so-called greatest generation. The story it tells has an eerie contemporary resonance. The chapters regarding the secret Japanese prison camp of Ofuna remind me of America's current quandary at Guantanamo Bay, making me feel sure that future generations will regard our "enhanced interrogations" with universal shame, the same way contemporary Japan regards its own treatment of POW's in World War II. Cultural and circumstantial rationalizations have short half-lives when it comes to violations of human rights. (Fortunately for those who commit such crimes, there are always new atrocities to draw the world's attention away -- but I digress.)

And Louis Zamperini's own personal progress fits well with the contemporary mania for true-life accounts of hard-won redemption. As heroic as the gloss of Louis Zamperini's life may seem, in truth, the man is all-too-human, and it's his refreshing honesty that anchors the book. His volatile temper and his love of booze often get the best of him. But I know many 12-steppers who could take comfort & inspiration from the way Zamperini confronts his own failings and perseveres even as his circumstances get worse and worse.

I give nothing away by revealing that, at least for Louis, the one-time "Torrance Tornado" who set a college track record and seemed destined for Olympic gold, this book ends happily. At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, he is a bearer of the Olympic flame. It's an ending that Zamperini heartily earns.

Unbroken entralled me from the very first page. Give it a chance, and I'm sure you'll be swept along, as well.

1 comment:

  1. The story of this man and the events of his life ; his challenges and how he dealt with them, has stayed with me long after the last page was turned.

    A highly recommend read.