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Laura Hillenbrand – Unbroken

March 6, 2016

Hillenbrand, Laura - Unbroken - 40074. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)

Length: 528 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction; Biography

Started: 04 November 2015
Finished: 08 November 2015

Where did it come from? Bought used from Amazon.
Why do I have it? Book Club selection for the month.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 29 September 2015.

Stuck on a raft for
a month and a half: not as
bad as prison camp.

Summary: Louis Zamperini channeled his boyhood troublemaking into a love of running, where he discovered he was good enough to win races not only in his home state of California, but also all the way to the Berlin Olympics. When the U.S. entered World War II, Zamperini joined the Army Air Forces, becoming part of the crew of a B24 bomber in the Pacific theater. When the plane crashed into the ocean in 1943, Louis and two of his crewmates made it aboard a tiny raft, where they would stay – dealing with sharks, dehydration, starvation, and sunstroke, for an incredible forty-six days. But that was not the worst ordeal they would face, because they were not rescued by the American forces, but captured by the Japanese, and spent the rest of the war in a Japanese POW camp, under conditions frequently too horrific to be imagined.

Review: I thought this book was amazingly compelling, although not necessarily the most unbiased portrayal of Zamperini’s life, or of America’s role in the Pacific theater of WWII. I read this book for one of my book clubs, and part of our discussion focused around whether biographies can ever truly be unbiased, especially when they are based (as this one is) largely on testimony of the biography subject himself, mostly 60+ years after the events of the story have taken place.

This especially bothered me in the early parts of the book, where Hillenbrand describes Zamperini’s childhood as being full of thievery, fighting, and vandalism, but she treats it all with an “aww, shucks, isn’t that charming, boys will be boys” attitude: “In a childhood of artful dodging, Louie made more than just mischief. He shaped who he would be in manhood. Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, he was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.” I understand that humans are storytelling animals, that we want every detail to neatly fit in to help build the story. I also understand that part of the point of this book is to try to tease out what allowed Louie to survive so much, when so many others in his situation would not – and did not. But real life is not literature, and not every detail eventually fuels the plot, and so this passing over of bad behavior as a rougishly charming character quirk made me suspicious throughout the rest of the book that Hillenbrand was glorifying her subject and her story beyond what the facts could support.

But even if Hillenbrand is subject to casting every action and every decision by Zamperini in the post-facto light of heroics, the story itself, even stripped to its barest facts, is so incredible that I found the book incredibly compelling. The first third or so, involving Zamperini’s childhood, running career, and early war career, to be somewhat slow going, possibly for the reasons mentioned above. But as soon as he and his crewmates were in that raft, I was completely hooked. I finished over half of this book in a single day, barely putting it down to eat or drink. Stories of survival under impossible conditions are pretty universally interesting, I think; it’s impossible to read something like this without wondering what you would do, or if you could make it. And while I don’t necessarily think that being a survivor automatically makes one a hero (another topic from our book club discussion), it does make for an amazing and inspirational tale. Zamperini’s story was one I hadn’t heard before (nor do I really know much about the Pacific front of WWII in general – almost everything I’ve read has been about the war in Western Europe), and Hillenbrand’s good about including enough details that I felt like I had a good idea of the context surrounding the more personal story. Overall, I found this book rather biased, and maybe trying to sell me too hard on its thesis about heroism and resilience and hope, but still a fascinating and compelling read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: This book was so all over the place a few years ago that I imagine that most people that it would appeal to (World War II buffs, biography fans, generalized non-fiction-ophiles) probably already have it on their radar, but if you are any of those things, or even if you just like amazing true stories of what human beings are capable of enduring, then Hillenbrand’s telling of Zamperini’s story is worth your time.

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First Line: All he could see, in every direction, was water.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2016 11:13 am

    A non-reading friend of mine read this and loved it. I’ve been meaning to read it ever since he recommended it but haven’t gotten to it yet.

  2. March 6, 2016 6:22 pm

    I have this. I just have to actually read it!

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