In “Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand returns to tell another story (after “Seabiscuit”) of someone who has been bloodied by adversity, but not broken by it.
Louie Zamperini was one of the world’s hottest track stars, breaking record after record and running in the 1936 Olympics. Then WWII broke out, and he ended up as a bombardier on a B-24 assigned to the Pacific theater. After several harrowing missions, his plane went down over the ocean, and only he and two other crewmembers survived. They spent almost 50 days drifting slowly across the Pacific, living off what they could catch and fighting off sharks, before being captured by the Japanese. Louie and the one other surviving member of the crew then spent the next 2+ years undergoing brutal mistreatment in Japanese POW camps, before finally being freed at the end of the war–something that left Louie adrift and struggling to find his purpose in life, now that he no longer had either war or sports (the privation and abuse he received in the camps left him unable to run competitively) to sustain him.
Hillenbrand is a skillful scene-setter and tension-builder, and the book, although meticulously researched (she even had someone come to her house and set up a Norden bombsight in her living room so she, although largely housebound at the time, could practice bombing Arizona, she says in the afterword), reads like a thrilling adventure tale. The raft trip across the Pacific is particularly harrowing, with the men forced to use their oars and sometimes their bare hands to fight off sharks on a daily basis. And the horrors of the POW camps are described in detail, making this not a read for the faint of heart.
That being said, “Unbroken” does have a certain “Go Troops!” wholesomeness and ra-ra-America sentiment that will probably appeal to patriotic readers; more skeptical readers may find themselves asking questions. The US troops and US war effort are generally depicted with the halo of sanctity that seems to surround so much of the Allied side of the war these days. Since Hillenbrand is telling Louie’s story, that’s not surprising, and she does make a strong case for why the POWs were, at least initially, thrilled at the bombing of Japanese cities, including the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Still, it’s hard from a modern perspective (at least for me) not to be appalled at the destruction both the regular fire-bombing and the A-bomb unleashed on heavily populated urban areas, and to feel that, whatever war guilt Japan might have had, it was all redeemed the moment the A-bomb burst over Hiroshima.
In the end, though, “Unbroken” is not so much a war story–although it’s that as well–as it is a story of one man’s triumph over adversity, including, at the end, his multi-year struggle with alcoholism brought on by the trauma he experienced in the war. It’s both understandable and ironic that Hillenbrand, who has been severely ill, including long periods of being housebound or bed-bound, for most of her life, should be drawn to these characters who do manage to recover from the severe trials they undergo. Very likely that fascination on her part adds to the liveliness she brings to her writing, and begs the question of what does it mean to be unbroken? A riveting read about a truly remarkable person, written by another remarkable person.
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