On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.
Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.
In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.
The best way to get you to read this story is to tell you the story. Louie Zamperini is a carefree Californian on the brink of running a mile in less than four minutes and training for the 1940 Olympics. Bombs fall on Pearl Harbor and Louie abandons his dreams to join the military. He becomes a bombardier and completes a few thrillingly dangerous missions in the Pacific Theatre. If the story ends there, it’s already remarkable; it doesn’t. Louie’s plane crashes into the Pacific, and only he and two other men survive. They float on a raft for weeks, avoiding sharks and overhead Japanese fire, only nourished and hydrated by what they can procure with their own hands. Again: if the story ends here, it’s amazing; again: it doesn’t. Eventually Louie finds his way back to land but faces immediate capture by the Japanese. From there he endures years of forced labor, starvation, physical beatings, and mental degradation in various POW camps. And in August 1945 finally: The End.
Amazing, right? And I’ve technically spoiled nothing—that entire story is recounted in the Unbroken’s blurb—yet all you want to do after having this story spoiled is to read the actual story, because sometimes real-life is more incredible than any fiction can ever be. Louie’s story is literally unbelievable, and I don’t use “literally” lightly; it frequently defies the limits of believability but author Laura Hillenbrand, who recounts Louie’s tale with passion and empathy, cites hundreds of interviews, military documents, and newspaper clippings in Unbroken’s bibliography. And you realize, as you turn each page growing more and more horrified: holy crap, this all really happened!
Reading Unbroken I discovered two things about myself: 1. I will read any book featuring shark attacks and life rafts in the Pacific 2. I would die—quickly, painfully, wimpily—in any real-life situation featuring shark attacks and life rafts in the Pacific.
Fortunately I am not the protagonist of Unbroken. All the people who actually lived this experience dealt much better with the situation than I ever could, and their demonstration of human dignity and fortitude inspired my normally withered heart. What I especially appreciated was how Hillenbrand gave voices to individuals other than Louie. His pilot friend Phil, who shares the raft and POW captivity with him, was my particular favorite, mostly for his stoic devotion to his sweetheart back home. Even the “villains” of this story, though Hillenbrand would never be so crass as to classify a real person as a villain considering how grey wartime situations can be, are complexly rendered. Louie’s greatest antagonist, a Japanese prison guard nicknamed “The Bird,” is a towering, terrifying figure, but he still manages to seem human, instead of a simplistic and prototypic symbol for Evil and Other and Enemy.
One word that continually occurred to me while reading Unbroken was miracle. There are so many miracles here, bizarre coincidences that accumulate until you’re a little bit speechless. I was prepared to dislike Unbroken: normally I loathe war books and the only reason I was giving it a go was because my mom and dad repeatedly urged me to “just read it.” If a brief summary of Louie’s story hasn’t already convinced you to read it, I’m going to quote my mom and dad: “Just read it.”
(And if that didn’t convince you, there’s also an upcoming film adaptation slated for Christmas 2014 directed by none other than Angelina Jolie!)