Tag Archives: American History

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Ron’s #3: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

For good reason, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand landed on many Best of the Year lists in 2010, including on Mark’s. I’m not sure I would have picked this up otherwise; I like World War II books as much as the next guy (if the next guy in question also likes World War II books), but this is focused on one man. And it’s 500 pages. I wasn’t sure that I was ready to commit.

I’m so glad that I did. After a few pages, I knew that I would love this book. Unbroken is the story of Louie Zamperini, a hooligan-turned-Olympic runner-turned-pilot-turned-prisoner of war-turned- unbroken and hopeful man. That’s a pretty good one-sentence summary of the book, just in case the publisher is looking for a subtitle for the forthcoming paperback version. I liked Louie instantly; he was a troublemaker tough-guy, but found his escape from his California town by running. Introduced to the sport by his brother, Louie runs in high school, college, and then in the 1936 Berlin Olympics where he met Adolph Hitler.

His life changed soon after as the story follows Louie into his new career as an AAC bombardier, until he crashes in the Pacific. Louie and two others survive at sea for over forty days without provisions (with a troubling scene about a lice infestation in his newly grown beard). If the story ended here, it would be a powerful journey. However, it does not. Much of the book is his horrid treatment in several prisoner of war camps in Japan. Just when I thought all the evil happened to Louie, there is a new chapter of horror.

The title is perfect to describe Zamperini. This man personifies courage, resilience, and hope in ways I have never seen. There were times I gasped aloud to read his ordeals. The squalor and suffering only provide a backdrop to allow Louie’s courage and character to shine brightly.

I hesitate to say to much to avoid taking away the suspense as you read it, but allow me to say that Louie continues to sink lower into despondency and hopeless until God intervenes. In literature, it’s called deux ex machina; in life, it is called redemption.

This book also has much to say about the many Japanese atrocities in World War II, whether it is in prison camps, Pearl Harbor, or Nanking:

The Japanese military surrounded the city of Nanking, stranding more than half a million civilians and 90,000 Chinese soldiers. The soldiers surrendered and, assured of their safety, submitted to being bound. Japanese officers then issued a written order: ALL PRISONERS OF WAR ARE TO BE EXECUTED. What followed was a six-week frenzy of killing that defies articulation. Masses of POWs were beheaded, machine-gunned, bayoneted, and burned alive. The Japanese turned on civilians, engaging in killing contests, raping tens of thousands of people, mutilating and crucifying them, and provoking dogs to maul them. Japanese soldiers took pictures of themselves posing alongside hacked-up bodies, severed heads, and women strapped down for rape. The Japanese press ran tallies of the killing contests as if they were baseball scores, praising the heroism of the contestants. Historians estimate that the Japanese military murdered between 200,000 and 430,000 Chinese, including the 90,000 POWs, in what became known as the Rape of Nanking.

This gives a more complete picture of the behavior and the attitudes of Japan, and why Hiroshima and Nagasaki were last resorts. Japan was on par of the atrocities committed by Hitler and Germany, and the two countries had more in common during treatment of people during the war than they differed. This concept certainly is not in our modern psyche. It is accepted (and often applauded) to denigrate Germany, but it is labeled as racist if we criticize Japan.

In addition to the highlighting of a great man and as a history lesson, Unbroken is simply excellent prose. Hillenbrand has a poetic style of writing even the cruelest events.

Examples:

He felt as if he would faint, but it wasn’t from the exertion. It was from the realization of what he was.

One engine, for reasons known only to the plane, was thirstier than the others, so the gauges had to be watched constantly

There was one perk to life in the barracks. The bathroom was plastered in girlie pinups, a Sistine Chapel of pornography.

But it was good to feel oriented, to know that they were drifting toward land somewhere out there, on the far side of the earth’s tilt.

Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. 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 the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.

The paradox of vengefulness is that it makes men dependent upon those who have harmed them, believing that their release from pain will come only when they make their tormentors suffer.

Whether or not you are a fan of war accounts, go read this book. Like me, you will be mesmerized with Louie Zamperini for good reason. He is a man who stands above other men, and his story demands to be told. The more like Zamperini we are, the better the world would be.

mark

Mark’s #45 – Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (114 pages)

Frederick Douglass: “I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes, –a justifier of the most appalling barbarity, –a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,–and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and the most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.”

Having recently read (#43) Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I decided to read one more book detailing the plague of slavery in our nation’s history.  As the title suggests, this book is a brief autobiography of Fredrick Douglass, detailing his life as a slave in Maryland from his birth in circa 1818 (he never knew the exact year of his birth) until his escape to freedom in 1838 and (briefly) the subsequent decades later where he became a leading voice for the abolitionist movement.

Like Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Douglass’ account of slavery in America is shocking and enraging.  At the time, there was much talk about how the slave states closer to the north, like Maryland, were the most humane states.  If that is the case, then one would be hard pressed to conceive just how awful things could have been in states like Georgia, Alabama, and Louisiana.

In his book, Douglass shows how slavery has a dehumanizing effect – not only on the slave, but on the slave owner as well.  One striking example of this is when he tells the story of going to a new master in Baltimore.  This master and his wife had never owned any slaves previously.   At first, the both the husband, and especially the wife, were kind and humane to their new slave.  But within a few short months, the effect of owning a slave had completely warped and twisted their personalities and temperaments – it’s as if they had become animals.

However, before this change by the new masters, the wife had taken to teaching young Frederick to learn his A,B,Cs and some basics of reading.  When the husband discovered this, he forbade his wife from continuing the education and warned her (within earshot of Frederick) of the dangers teaching a slave how to read.  He said that, soon, the slave would rise up and revolt… he would think about and plan his escape… which is exactly what the seed of that conversation did  on young Frederick.

Like Stowe’s book, Douglass shows the utter hypocrisy of the so called ‘Christians’ of both the south and the north at the time.  In fact, perhaps the best part of the book was the epilogue, where he clarifies his comments on religion.  Here he states that he loves the Religion of  the Jesus of the Bible, but utterly despises the Christianity of America (again, both in the north and south).  He compares the Christians of that day as those of the Pharisees where Jesus accuses them of straining out gnats and swallowing camels (Mt. 23:24).  He laments how the cruel slave owner could whip his slave on Saturday, and then fill the pulpit on Sunday – Or how they wouldn’t think of fellowshipping with someone guilty of stealing a sheep, while the whole church is filled with people who steal and kill fellow human beings. – Or how they preach the importance of reading God’s Word, while forbidding the slave from learning how to read it.

The question for me and for you, and for anyone in any generation that calls themselves Christian is this; What areas of my life is there a disconnect (hypocrisy) from what the words of the Bible says and what I believe and do?  And furthermore, should I, by God’s grace, learn of my hypocrisy, would I be willing to repent and change accordingly?

I pray so.

mark

Mark’s #43 – Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe (576 pages)

Part of my journey of 52 books this year is to read some of the great classics I should have read while in high school.  With that in mind, I decided to read perhaps the most influential American novel ever written – Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Published in 1852, the book became the #1 selling novel of the 19th century.  This anti-slavery novel,”helped lay the groundwork for the civil war”, according to Will Kaufman.  Uncle Tom’s Cabin, along with Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, demonstrate the power of fiction in the shaping of a collective consciousness and social change.

The novel follows the the life of the slave named ‘Uncle Tom’ as well as the characters and slave masters surrounding his life.  Stowe did an excellent job of painting a picture of the plight of slavery in the 1850′s.  She draws the reader into the horrors of having human beings, created in God’s image, being treated as property to be used and abused however the slave master sees fit.   She also does a good job showing the complexities of slavery for both the north and the south.

One of the most powerful aspects of Stowe’s writing is the way she portrayed the faith and the gospel in light of slavery.  She showed how southern preachers and slave owners would twist the Scriptures to make them fit their agenda.  She also showed, particularly through the Christian character of Uncle Tom what it looks like to see Jesus as the treasure and savior that He is, in spite of the struggle and persecutions of this life.  I was very moved by the faith of Uncle Tom and his perseverance in the face of his cruel slave master.

Though a novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is more than a story.  It is a tour de force argument for the abolition of slavery.  Though the characters are fictional, the realities and even specific stories are not.  At the end of the book Stowe shows how each story and each character found their way into the book via real life examples.

Anyone who would claim even a rudimentary knowledge of American history should be well versed in this book.

*You can read Uncle Tom’s Cabin for free via the kindle download (As I did)

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