Laura Hillenbrand




Date Reviewed:

April 21, 2012

nbroken was a huge bestseller in 2011, but would it live up to the hype? When there is so much advanced praise and hype, my expectations are heightened and then I am disappointed when I read the book (such as merely-average The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, or the laughably overrated Da Vinci Code). But sometimes the book lives up to the hype - such as Into Thin Air or The Life of Pi. I am glad to say that (in my opinion) Unbroken deserves its tremendous praise.

Unbroken is the true story of the life of Louie Zamperini. It chronicles all the incredible experiences of his life, beginning with his racing exploits as a teenager. Zamperini started his life as an energetic, incorrigible child, constantly getting in trouble for minor infractions such as elaborate pranks or petty theft - but eventually this raw energy was focused into racing, and Louie discovered he had a gift for running. As the youngest member of the US distance running team, Louie took part in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He finishes seventh in the 1500 meter race, but he ran his final lap so fast that Hitler himself briefly commended him with: "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish."

Louie's promising racing career (the book speculates at a couple of points on whether or not Louie could have become the first man to break the four minute mile mark) is soon cut short by World War II. Louie ends up in the Air Force, flying B-24s in the Pacific Theater. Hillenbrand does a great job here describing the perils of flying at that time. She documents the huge numbers of men and planes that are lost simply due to accidents, weather or mechanical failure - thousands of men lost their lives before they ever engaged the Japanese forces. Louie becomes an accomplished bombadier, a member of a B-24 crew on a plane that they nickname "Superman". The harrowing descriptions of their early missions - flying hundreds of miles over open water, their plane shot to pieces ("594 bullet holes!"), trying to limp home with failing engines and low on fuel - Louie's early flying adventures are enough to make him a hero. But Louie's WWII experience is just getting started.

Louie's crew is sent out to as a search party for a missing bomber - they are given a mechanically suspect plane called the Green Hornet to fly on their search mission. But when one engine fails, the engineer mistakenly shuts down the second engine, and the Green Hornet suddenly makes a crash landing in the Pacific Ocean. Only Louie, Phil and Mac survive the plane crash to make it aboard the life rafts. They begin an incredible ordeal - seven weeks in tiny inflated raft, drifing westward across the Pacific - starving, broiling in the sun, and once strafed by a Japanese plane. The sharks were the scariest part. Are sharks really so common across the entire ocean? The attack by the great white shark was scary, even though the reader knows that Louie survives because he lived to tell his tale.

After that epic ordeal in the life raft, Louie and Phil finally sight an island - only to be picked up just off shore by a Japanese warship. Things only get worse from there. The story of the American POWs held by the Japanese is an amazing story. This is the longest part of Louie's war time journey and it is nothing but torment and suffering deliberately caused by the Japanese soldiers. The worst of these men is a guard named Watanabe, whom the men nickname The Bird. He is a sadist, and for some reason he focuses his attention on Louie, attacking him with vicious brutality. Quite frankly, I am surprised anyone could survive such treatment - how could sick, starving men endure such repeated punishment? A good number of men did perish, but from the description of the Japanese POW camp soldiers, I would have expected an even higher mortality rate.

Hillenbrand does a good job describing the B29 raids on Japan, their devastating effect on the Japanese cities. Yet the Japanese refuse to surrender, preparing to fight to the death when the American invade. But the dropping of the atomic bombs ends the war, and perhaps actually saved lives, considering the suicidal resistance that Japan was preparing for an invasion force.

Unbroken tells an amazing story. The only thing I would change is the title itself, maybe calling the book "The Lucky Survivor" or "One Man in a Million", because I couldn't help but wonder about other men who must have had similar stories but not quite enough luck to make it in the end. How many men drifted for weeks in tiny rafts before finally succumbing? Hillendbrand describes Louie's postwar difficulties - nightmares, flashbacks, alcoholism, and a burning desire to return to Japan and hunt down Watanabe and murder him. If Louie isn't a broken man, then what is a broken man? How could this be a story about redemption unless Louie was broken?

Louie overcame some incredible odds. Unbroken tells his amazing story. I recommend this book.