03 Aug / Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Clearly, Unbroken falls into the ‘you can’t make this stuff up’-category. Within the almost 500 pages of print (or 14 hours of listening – narrated with such dignity by award-winning actor Edward Herrman!), you’ll experience just about every human emotion … from elation to misery, hope to despair, devotion to revulsion, trust to rejection, and all the nuances in between.
Laura Hillenbrand, the mega-bestselling author with Seabiscuit: An American Legend, continued to come across the name and achievements of Louis Zamperini while researching her story about a young racehorse that could, would, and did. About a year after Seabiscuit‘s phenomenal debut, Hillenbrand called Zamperini. Some seven years later, Hillenbrand had another spectacular story to tell the world …
As the Olympic athlete who got to meet Hitler, who should have been the runner to break the four-minute mile, who survived a plane crash that left him floating for 47 days in the open Pacific only to endure the most atrocious odyssey of abuse as a Japanese POW during Word War II, Louis Zamperini is irrefutably the star of Unbroken. That said, what makes Hillenbrand’s book so much more than a biography or historical tome, is her remarkable ability to enhance (but never embellish) Zamperini’s experiences and ordeals with an equally unforgettable, sprawling cast of many, many characters.
Without his older brother Pete, Zamperini would never have become a remarkable runner. Without his Army Air Corps roommate and buddy Lt. Russell Allen Phillips (Phil), and even Sgt. Francis McNamara (Mac), Zamperini couldn’t have survived the endless days adrift after the crash of their Green Hornet airplane. Without the empathetic leadership of Lt. Bill Harris in the infamous Ofuna POW camp and, in a twist of horrific irony, without Zamperini’s consuming hatred for his captor Mutsuhiro Watanabe (“the Bird”) – one of history’s most heinous POW torturers – Zamperini might not have survived his hellish odyssey in Japan. Most importantly, without his family – especially his mother who adamantly refused to believe the reports of her younger son’s death – and his persevering wife Cynthia, surely Zamperini would never have recovered from his post-war induced alcoholism and mental collapse.
With spectacular details only primary sources could provide, and a scrupulous patience to weave all the intricate strands together, Unbroken is a stellar achievement. That said, any recommendation to potential readers comes with a caveat: the horror is relentless through much of this brilliant book. Graphic, tormented titles – including Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth Norman, upcoming Nanjing Requiem by National Book Award winner Ha Jin, and of course, the now-classic The Rape of Nanking by Iris Chang whose inability to unsee the horrific images she lived with for too many years played a decisive role in her 2004 suicide – serve as both testimony and warning. We cannot, should not turn away – knowledge is so much a part of prevention (and redemption) – and yet for our own sanity, personal discretion must indeed be advised.