Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand, made me miss my subway stop. I was so engaged by the story during one morning commute, I looked up to find the train already pulling out of the station. The subject, the life story of Louis Zamperini, may just be the most compelling one I’ve ever read.
This is a book you’ll be grateful you read. It will shift your perspective. It will stay with you when you’re not reading and sink right into your soul. If this was a novel, you might argue the plot is unbelievable. All of these things could not possibly have happened to one man. But they did.
Louis Zamperini was a wild, too-smart-for-his-own-good boy in Torrence, California. He was going nowhere fast. During the Depression, things were tough enough for the family and now they had a son who couldn’t get his act together. Then Louie’s brother introduced him to running. At the very least, it would give him an outlet for all that energy, but it turned into much more than that for Louie. It became his passion. Running opened incredible doors for him, but war broke out and, like so many young men, he put his dreams on hold to fight for his country.
What happens next reads like a Shakespearean tragedy and the Bard himself would be impressed by Hillenbrand’s ability to weave suspense in narration. This is not the artificial suspense of withholding information from the reader, but the manipulation of sentence length, pace and word selection to build expectations. She mostly stays out of it (more on this in a moment), letting the story do the talking, which requires a lot of confidence on the writer’s part. Let me share a bit from the book’s preface. Notice the barest sprinkling of adjectives and adverbs.
All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was late June 1943. Somewhere on an endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had withered down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting. The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days. Borne by en equatorial current, they had floated at least one thousand miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters….
On that morning of the twenty-seventh day, the men heard a distant, deep strumming. Every airman knew that sound: pistons. Their eyes caught a glint in the sky—a plane, high overhead. Zamperini fired two flares and shook powdered dye into the water, enveloping the rafts in a circle of vivid orange. The plane kept going, slowly disappearing. The men sagged. Then the sound returned, and the plane came back into view. The crew had seen them.
With arms shrunken to little more than bone and yellowed skin, the castaways waved and shouted, their voices thin from thirst. The plane dropped low and swept alongside the rafts. Zamperini saw the profiles of the crewmen, dark against the bright blueness.
There was a terrific roaring sound. The water, and the rafts themselves, seemed to boil. It was machine gun fire. This was not an American rescue plane. It was a Japanese bomber.
Louie’s story took an even more dramatic turn as he was imprisoned as a POW and we bear witness to a rarely talked about aspect of WWII—the unbearable cruelty of many Japanese guards who believed that soldiers allowing themselves to be captured were disgraceful. Hillenbrand cited a sobering statistic: one in 100 American POWs died in captivity in Europe; one in three American POWs died in Japan. For me, the descriptions of the abuse suffered by Louie and his fellow POWs were grueling and overwhelming. But press on. Read it. Acknowledge it. Hillenbrand wants you to understand what Louie went through, to walk vicariously in his shoes in order to come out the other side, like he did. Only then will you gain the full magnitude of what Louie’s life is all about: forgiveness without needing anything in return. For me, that scene was worth reading the entire book.
Earlier I’d mentioned Hillenbrand’s ability to keep authorial intrusion to a minimum. The few instances that occur where she butts in are mostly in the passages when Louie was a boy, owing to the possibility that she was trying to endear us to a kid who did some pretty bad things. (There are also some toward the end when she is trying to recap.) From that point on, she pulls back, which I count as a positive. We don’t need overwrought prose to drive home the plot points. They are dramatic enough. That said, there is a downside: we get little of Louie’s voice coming through in thoughts or emotions. Very occasionally, there is a sentence to two, but I would have liked a bit more than that. For example, in the POW camp a American bomber flies very low over the prisoners, so low that Louie can see the pilot’s face. They even exchange glances. I imagined (or assumed) Louie would have had some sort of personal reaction, if only a twinge of wistfulness that he used to fly these kinds of missions in that kind of plane. I don’t like having to reach outside the story to guess. But this is a minor issue for me. It could have been the result of her inability to do face-to-face interviews while researching the book. Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and, by her account, has only left her house twice in the past two years. At any rate, the rest of the time she is spot on.
After reading Unbroken it’s easy to understand how brutality begets hatred and how forgiveness, instead of vengeance, is the ultimate answer. This story isn’t just for sports fans or war buffs. Everyone can find a connection here because at its heart it’s about the true meaning of dignity, hope and resilience.