Thursday, February 24, 2011

UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand

I read a lot of history. I have a passionate desire to know the past. When you read about our history as a country, a world, and a species, you get a sense of many things. I gain a better understanding of how we got here, how the world works and doesn’t work, historical empathy for the past and its people, and a better appreciation for my own fortunate life. I also see this: the world has been filled with many extraordinary people, and that human beings have the capacity to commit unimaginable acts of horror on other people.

Specific parts and images of these books remain inside me, silently haunting deep recesses of my brain. I read Philip Gourevitch’s book on the Rwandan genocide, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families; I read Jonathan Glover’s “Moral History of the Twentieth Century,” Humanity; I read Dee Brown’s classic of Native American history, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee; and I have read young adult novels, such as Ben Mikelson’s Tree Girl, about the brutal Guatemalan Civil War. And now I have read Laura Hillenbrand’s remarkable biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken. You should too.

As a kid, Louis Zamperini was trouble. He had trouble with his parents, the police, and his neighbors. His brother saved him. He convinced Louie to take up running and eventually Zamperini became a world-class runner. At 19 years old he ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He didn’t win – he didn’t really expect to win being so young – but he ran the last lap of the 5000 meter in such an astonishing 56 seconds, that Hitler called him over and shook his hand. Little did Zamperini know how ironic that handshake would turn out to be.

Zamperini’s best race was the 1500 meter, and he expected to run it and win it at the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. Needless to say, a World War got in the way. Louie joined the Air Force and became a bombardier on a B-26. Hillenbrand’s account of one his bombing missions will leave you breathless and full of wonder: How could they possibly survive that? When their plane landed it had 594 holes in it.

Another one of their flights did not end so well. In fact, they went down in the Pacific Ocean. Zamperini and two other crewmembers survived. The three of them were in two plastic life rafts in the middle of the Pacific. They had very little water and a few chocolate bars. They survived in those rafts for an unbelievable 47 days. How they did it, and what they encountered, has become the stuff of legend. But Louie’s story does not end there.

They were rescued near the Marshall Islands, then occupied by the Japanese, and became prisoners of war. Most people know of the inconceivable madness and terror the Nazis perpetrated in their concentration camps. But most people have no idea of the brutality of the Japanese during World War II. (You can get the horrifying picture of that in Iris Chang’s book, The Rape of Nanking). Being a prisoner of war under the Japanese in the Pacific was nearly a death sentence. Hillenbrand offers this statistic near the end of her book: during World War II about one percent of Americans in German and Italian POW camps died, but in Japanese POW camps 37 percent died. Being a famous Olympic athlete meant Louie was singled out by his Japanese overseers. He received years of beatings, torture, starvation, and humiliation. Nothing I write here can come close to expressing what Louie endured as a POW. Yet, he survived. Louie is alive and well at 94.

Hillenbrand’s book is not without fault. The story is amazing, and once you are inside it, you will be sucked along. Her writing, however, gave me some pause. The book is very well written, but in a very “just the facts” manner. In the entire 400 pages she quotes Louie exactly once. For some reason, Hillenbrand chose to not include Louie’s voice in the book. And while it has been widely reported that she interviewed Zamperini 75 times, Hillenbrand (who also wrote the best-selling Seabiscuit) suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and rarely leaves the house. In fact, Hillenbrand and Zamperini have never met face to face. Another reviewer of this book made a very salient point: you learn more about a person when they are sitting in front of you than when they are on the other end of a telephone or computer. Because of this there is a certain odd distance in the writing of Unbroken and along with it an uncritical perspective from author to subject.

But let’s be crystal clear: Unbroken is a great and important book. I will add it to my list of books that opened up the past, helped me to appreciate my present, and really do make me a better person. Reading history – and this remarkable story of the perseverance of Louie Zamperini -- can aid us all in shaping a more humane world.


Alicia said...

Just recommended this one to my husband (he's a guy, right?). A bunch of my colleagues - men and women - have already read and loved it. Oh, and I think you meant to say Hillenbrand wrote Seabiscuit, not Secretariat.

swolk said...

Alicia, thanks for your comment -- and for catching that I had the wrong horse.

Samuel J. Anderson said...

Read my review for this newyork times best seller at: