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.
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.