Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Since author Laura Hillenbrand’s fabulous book Seabiscuit was about a racehorse famous between 1936-38, and her recently released book Unbroken is about an Olympic track star who eventually became a WWII prisoner of war, I just knew there had to be some connection between those two topics. Sure enough, there it was on page 40 of Unbroken: Louis Zamperini’s track coach at the University of Southern California is quoted saying, “The only runner that could beat him (Zamperini) was Seabiscuit.”

Louis Zamperini, born in 1920 to Italian immigrants in Torrance, California, was trouble looking for a place to happen (smoking at age 5 and drinking at 8), so his brother Pete got him involved in the school track team. Louis set a world interscholastic record in the mile and eventually a place on the 1936 U.S. Olympic team, along with Jesse Owens who famously won four gold medals in Berlin, annoying the hell out of Hitler.

Although Zamperini is a track legend (he’s now 94 and has carried the Olympic Torch at five different games), Hillenbrand’s book is primarily focused on Zamperini’s horrific and inspiring tale of survival as a WWII prisoner of war.

I’ll spare you my soapbox speech on old men sending young soldiers off on questionable quest, and just say that I was surprised that I enjoyed reading Unbroken. I didn’t enjoy the story about Zamperini and two other guys spending 47 days fighting off sharks, hunger and thirst while floating in a tiny life raft after their plane crashed into the Pacific. But I did enjoy Hillenbrand’s treatment of the story: the heroism, survival and resilience.

I certainly didn’t enjoy the seemingly endless torture of prisoners of war in Japanese captivity – extreme hunger and thirst, men loosing half their body weight, maggot covered food, daily beatings, years of almost unbelievable deprivation. But Hillenbrand’s writing kept me turning the page. I have to admit that the entire time I was reading those parts I felt squeamishly like a “rubbernecker.” Just when you think Zamperini’s situation can’t get any worse, it does. Which at some point just makes you want to say, “Oh, come on!” Click on Read More Below...

I did learn some rather jaw-dropping facts. For every plane lost in combat in WWII, six were lost in accidents. Of the 34,648 Americans held by Japan, more than 37% died. By comparison, only 1 percent of Americans held by the Nazis and Italians died. Hillenbrand speculates that the Japanese’s contempt for POWs was rooted in a cultural belief that "to be captured in war was intolerably shameful." I saw a quote in a review of Unbroken that I thought was astute. “Thanks to the Nazis, the atrocities committed by the Japanese tend to be a footnote in the history of WWII.”

I would be remiss in leaving out that Zamperini returns from the war, goes through Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome hell, is saved by Billy Graham, and becomes an inspirational speaker.

Two things that came up in my book club discussion of Unbroken that I think are worth mentioning:

  1. The idealization of WWII and its veterans, compared to the Korean, Vietnam and Middle East wars. I never have and never will endorse or condone war, but I do think that every soldier serving our country deserves equal and great gratitude and treatment.
  2. Chronic Fatigue Syndrome has kept author Laura Hillenbrand bedridden most of her adult life. Her story is truly amazing. I had no idea what a debilitating illness this is. Click here to read A Sudden Illness – How My Life Changed, a brief story she wrote about her illness. The Washington Post also wrote a really interesting story about her.  Both are well worth the time to read.

And finally, although I highly recommend that you read Unbroken, I feel compelled to point out a couple of things that made me wonder.

  1. Over and over again I saw reviews of Unbroken in which people said that the book that Zamperini wrote, Devil at My Heels, was better than Unbroken because it delved deeper into Zamperini’s character/persona and the other people in his life.
  2. And that was my one complaint about Unbroken: the nagging feeling that I never really knew Zamperini or any other people in his life. It was just “this” happened and then “that” happened. Of course the “this” and “that” are so stunning and well told by Hillenbrand that I barely noticed. But I did.


  1. Will wonders never cease--we both agree on this book--and like you, it was hard for me to read some of it. Linda Sue

  2. Loved Seabiscuit and will have to read this.