Book Review: “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand
Louis Zamperini’s name is a probably unfamiliar to you, that is, unless you’ve read Lauren Hillenbrand’s second book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. By this time next year, you most certainly will know of this book and his name as well as his incredible story, since it’s being made into a movie. Unbroken is scheduled for release in December 2014. A review of the book follows.
Laura Hillenbrand is one of the best American writers living today.
She’s written only two books, but both are incontestable masterpieces. A decade ago, she penned Seabiscuit, the remarkable true story of a thoroughbred racehorse during the 1930s which captured working-class America’s imagination and inspired a generation through the Great Depression.
Her more recent book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption is no less inspiring and just as compelling.
Unbroken tells the true story of Louis Zamperini, who lived one of the most extraordinary lives of any human being of the 20th Century. True to the book’s title, Zamperini’s life was one of survival, resilience, and redemption, disseminated here across 473 breathtaking pages of narrative. His was a remarkable life meriting the skills of our best writer, with an intense love of storytelling and a masterful talent for descriptive detail.
Zamperini’s biography is a roller coaster of the highest highs and lowest lows, both emotionally and physically. He grew up the son of Italian immigrants in Southern California, enduring hostility and open discrimination as a child. He became a petty criminal. Then, he became interested in track and field, mainly as a gateway to meet girls. By his early 20s, Zamperini had earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic team. He competed in the 1936 games held in Berlin. But Zamperini’s real test and personal journey was only just beginning.
With the outbreak of World War II, Zamperini joined the armed forces. He was assigned to the Army Air Force, where he became a pilot. Shipped off to the Pacific, Zamperini went on to fly on several combat missions. No detail is left uncovered by writer Hillenbrand who sculpts a clear picture of what it must have been like to pilot rickety metal planes, what still was a relatively new technology across vast distances of dangerous and deadly ocean. We tend to forget that no such thing had ever happened before and how dangerous those early missions were, not only from battles with the Japanese, but the constant threats of storms and sea.
In early 1943, Zamperini’s plane plunged into the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Normally, air-sea disasters of such magnitude would have been an automatic death sentence. Such crisis were for thousands of pilots and crew members who disappeared over open waters, were presumed drowned, and became listed as battle casualties. It probably should have been too for Zamperini, and his two surviving crew members. But where only a few men demonstrate bravery in the face of seemingly impossible odds, a smaller number still reveal courage that’s beyond compare. This was Zamperini, who survived in open sea with essentially nothing — no food, no water, no protection — for more than six weeks. His was the longest sea raft survival in history.
Yet, the unbearable ordeal of nagging thirst and starvation in a drifting boat in the blazing sun and open sores burning with sea water stood pale in comparison for the next horrifying chapter of Zamperini’s extraordinary journey during the war. The crew learns they are hopelessly drifting west, a terrorizing fact since all the islands there are occupied by the Japanese military. Imagine if you will, the horror of being “rescued” by an adversary which will most certainly enslave, beat, starve, and work its prisoners to death in unfathomable misery. In fact, Japan had an official written policy that any retreat in battle or departure from an island meant all prisoners of war were to be executed, without exemption. Japan didn’t want any lingering survivors who could bear witness to their cavalcade of horrors, or potentially fight in battle again. In a sense, dying of thirst in the open life raft drifting aimlessly at sea was the preferred option to capture by the Japanese.
Over the next two-and-a-half years Zamperini was transferred through a maze of prisoner of war camps, ultimately ending up on the Japanese mainland. His recount of what living in Japan was like as the tide of the war was turning against the Imperial Japanese Army is a remarkable eyewitness account, particularly among his fellow captives inside the camps. On one hand, Zamperini and the P.O.W.s hope that Allied Forces and the B-29 Flying Fortresses they can hear at night completely wipe out Japan. But such a victory came at the heaviest price, since it would also guarantee their own execution. Imagine facing that dilemma.
During imprisonment, Zamperini encountered unimaginable acts of barbarism, which (the record clearly shows) were largely unnecessary. Indeed, pain and cruelty became sport. His body weight fell from 155 to just 80 pounds. Yet no camp guard was quite as cruel as the sadistic P.O.W. commander who became known simply as “the Bird.” This psychopathic commandant took inexplicable joy from terrorizing and degrading all those around him. And here’s where the book achieves an even greater level of intensity than most war narratives of survival stories.
Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation as did the Japanese, for whom the loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose. On Kwajalein, Louis and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hilter’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. 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 and his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet. (page 183)
This becomes the struggle, above all else, of avoiding degradation. And from this, the book gains its spirit. Perhaps the most remarkable reaction to Unbroken is one of utter inspiration. Amid all the horrors and human degradation, there’s an even greater story within it of strength and hope. We know our hero survives the war, but the chapter on the closing days of the Japanese Empire when two atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki are a mesmerizing page turner. Needless to say, Zamperini’s perspective (then and now) on the use of atomic weapons against Japan deserves far more weight than the musings of armchair historians or barstool experts who like to watch The History Channel. His opinion won’t be revealed here. You’ll just have to read it for yourself.
Yet even though the was is over, the battle waging within Zamperini’s mind and soul is only beginning in the summer of 1945 when Japan surrendered. Unable to shake the unspeakable memories of the ordeal at sea and captivity as a prisoner of war, Zamperini begins gradual but perhaps foreseeable difficulty in readjustment to a normal life. The nightmares begin. He battles alcoholism. He can’t hold a job. His wife leaves him.
The ending to Zamperini’s transcendent journey is anti-climatic, perhaps understandable given his momentous life and death struggles during the war. He manages to resurrect himself, but remains entrenched in a personal mission of extracting revenge against those, his Japanese tormentors, who caused so much misery. He becomes obsessed with traveling to Japan, tracking down and killing “the Bird,” the evil commandant who reportedly escaped justice and was never tried as a war criminal.
Unfortunately, life is never easy. Happy endings only happen in novels. At the end of Unbroken, we’re left with an unsatisfying conclusion — one that’s very real and entirely believable. We’re left to ponder questions — unanswerable perhaps — about extracting revenge and the pursuit of justice, and the real victims of lingering pain and internal hatred.
In the end, we learn that Louis Zamperini is us. And we are Louis Zamperini.