Book review: ‘Unbroken,’ by Laura Hillenbrand
September 24, 2013
The trajectories of lives lived are often linear, balanced and unsurprising. To live such a life can be seen as a blessing or a curse, depending on the point of view. Every human has the potential to do great things, as much as each person has the capacity to live simply, which, in itself, can often be a great thing.
Some seek out fame; others run from it. The extraordinary story of Louis Zamperini, as documented in the enthralling book “Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand, shows how some lives loom so large that they seem fictitious.
To escape an early life of awkwardness and alienation, frustration and torment, young Louis finds salvation on the running track, fueling his growing muscles with all his pent-up anger and teenage discontentment. In a clear and engaging style, Hillenbrand follows Zamperini’s rise to fame as his running skills break records and leave the bullies in the dust. Zamperini’s spirit finds its fire and his body responds, putting him in a class of athletes that soon make this small-town misfit a household name.
With an uncanny ability to paint a vivid period picture, Hillenbrand soon has the reader cheering right along as Zamperini escapes the trap of delinquency, instead placing himself on a course to world fame and Olympic gold. Then, just when life seems in balance, World War II erupts, waylaying Zamperini’s Olympic dreams and setting him on a path he could never have fathomed.
The war claimed the lives of so many, too many even to comprehend, and unfathomable hardships touched millions, death claiming many of them. For each person who survived there is a story to tell, but few are as extraordinary as that of Louis Zamperini.
The battles over the Pacific were like no other kind of warfare previously known. Massive aircraft became war machines, capable of leveling cities and sinking ships with their bombs. Hillenbrand masterfully sets the stage for the epic climax of the book, as Zamperini’s B-24 plunges into the depths of the lonely waters, where he languishes for 47 days, adrift with his fellow airmen, floating helplessly toward enemy lands and capture.
Just as the reader can’t imagine one human being’s challenges getting any worse, they do. The now severely malnourished former world-class athlete finds himself living the saying, “out of the frying pan, into the fire.”
Prisoner-of-war conditions under the Japanese were alarmingly more harsh than for those captured in the European theater, and Zamperini finds himself the “Number One Prisoner” of Japan’s most notorious war criminal, Mutsuhiro Watanabe. With an unforgettable strength of character, Zamperini survives this second of two epic events in his life, nearly robbing him of his humanity and his will to live in the process. The war closes with Zamperini preparing to wage the third challenge of his life, the war against himself and the demons lurking within.
In recording the life of this extraordinary person, Hillenbrand has given the world a vital document about the resiliency of the human spirit, the power of redemption and forgiveness and a reminder of the potential of human determination and love.