Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Random House Audio, 2010
11 pp., $45.00
A Wonderful Life
Laura Hillenbrand won a vast readership with Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, takes up a subject far removed from that bestseller but equally stirring. She begins with a prologue that finds one-time Olympic runner Louis Zamperini afloat in a raft on the vast Pacific Ocean. A Japanese bomber drops out of the clouds and approaches, preparing to strafe him and his two fellow survivors with gunfire. Hillenbrand has chosen a scene that not only suggests how gripping her book will be but also captures a moment that will stick out in Louie's mind later as he stands upon the threshold of faith.
From there, she backtracks to chart Louie's growth from a rebellious boy fond of stealing pies from local bakeries to a young adult who, with help from his older brother Pete, learns to find discipline and joy through running. In describing his youth, Hillenbrand's writing is as deft and able as little Louie himself. And her adeptness at re-creating small town Torrence, California, is equally impressive. People and places are so thoroughly realized that Louie's story begins tugging on the heartstrings even before the end of the first chapter, when he runs away from home only to realize a couple of days later that life without a family is far worse than life with one.
Where Hillenbrand truly shines, however, is in describing Louie's World War II experience, which encompasses a frightening plane crash, 47 days aboard a small rubber raft, and nearly two years as a POW, in four different camps. This is what the bulk of the book is about, and Hillenbrand finds ways of expanding beyond her primary subject to talk about the larger experience of people in Louie's position. Before describing the plane crash that would test the limits of his will to survive, Hillenbrand spends a chapter (aptly titled "Only the Laundry Knew How Scared I Was") on the many dangers associated with serving aboard a B-24 Liberator. Likewise, she spends considerable time detailing the ways that prisoners of war communicated with each other and scrounged for extra food to supplement the paltry rations given to them by guards and prison officials.
In the book's second half, Hillenbrand stumbles slightly. Her meticulous account of life as a POW begins to feel redundant, so much so that we almost become desensitized to the trauma and violence experienced by the prisoners. At two of the camps where he is imprisoned, Louie is terrorized by the larger-than-life Corporal Matsuhiro Watanabe (or the Bird, as the prisoners call him). As a villain, he's not to be rivaled. One minute, his temper has him bursting into barracks, pummeling prisoners without mercy, while the next he's in tears, swearing that he'll never harm another soldier for as long as he lives. Unfortunately, so much time is spent describing the frequency of his rages that, from a storytelling perspective, their ferocity is diminished, even as Louie and the rest of the prisoners grow more fearful of him.
Fortunately, though, with the war over and Louie safe at home, a whole new drama develops. Plagued by dreams of the Bird's vicious beatings, Louie turns to alcohol for relief. When his mild dependence turns into a full-on addiction, his new marriage is put in danger. But hope and grace break through in the form of Billy Graham. During one of the evangelist's famous crusades, Louie experiences an epiphany that takes him back to that moment in the Pacific Ocean, when he and his fellow survivors were threatened by a Japanese bomber but somehow survived. Hillenbrand shows restraint in portraying Louie's conversion yet doesn't shy away from the real change it makes in his life. She writes objectively about his faith, avoiding sentimentality or editorializing, thus creating a more convincing portrait than she might have done otherwise. This is best demonstrated in a scene that takes place years later, when Louie travels back to Japan to visit the old prison guards who victimized him. Looking into their faces, he's overcome with excitement and does something completely unexpected. Hillenbrand writes, "In bewilderment, the men who had abused him watched him come to them, his hands extended, a radiant smile on his face." It's a scene that perfectly illustrates Louie's forgiveness of his enemies and the joy that he's found in Christ.
Unbroken is ultimately a book about what it means to be human and the vital role that dignity plays in each of our lives. "Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen," Hillenbrand writes. "The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man's soul in his body long past the point at which his body should have surrendered it."
Andrew Welch is a writer in Roanoke, Texas.
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