Monday, December 10, 2012

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand


Also reviewed by Heather.

Summary: 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. 

Review:  Lauren Hillenbrand has truly delivered a masterpiece.  She breathed a spirit into what so easily could have been another POW retelling that elevated it to an entirely other plane.  What Zamperini and his friends went through was horrific, but what I appreciated, and what has stuck with me, is that Hillenbrand continued the story through the darkness Zamperini suffered when he came home and shed light on the difficulties these POWs faced reentering the real world.  To be honest, reading about his struggles postwar was in some ways harder than reading about what he had to endure in the Japanese interrogation camps, but Zamperini was lucky.  Through the encouragement of his wife, he was reminded of a promise he made while trying to survive on a life raft – that if his life were spared, he’d serve God for the rest of it.  It was so heartening to read of his change of heart once that reawakening took place, and of the forgiveness he readily offered his captors when given the chance years later.

This was a very hard book to get my hands on (although it was published nearly two years ago, I had to wait for months to get it, and I’m rushing back to the library to return it, since there’s still quite a list of people waiting for it!), and I can completely understand why.  It’s nearly impossible to not fall in love with Louie, Phil, and the friends he makes on his journey.  His transformation from rebel child to Olympian, his refusal to be cowed, and the change of heart that saved his marriage, his postwar life, and allowed him to return to Japan on numerous occasions will stick with me very much like Corrie ten Boom.

Rating: Four and a half stars.

For the Sensitive Reader:  Detailed accounts of prisoner brutality and some strong language (the POWs certainly came up with some colorful nicknames).  

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