A Biography by Laura Hillenbrand
2010 / 473 Pages
The Setup: On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.
Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.
In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. (from the hardcover edition)
Though I’ve expounded on this particular topic before, it won’t stop me from doing it again here. I always find it difficult to “review” a piece of work that’s based on the true details of someone’s life. Who am I to judge the hardships that person endured and the choices they made?
Can I say that Louis Zamperini’s life was an interesting read? It sure was to me. Can I say that Laura Hillenbrand’s book was well written and meticulously researched? Yes I can. Ultimately though the answers to these questions make for a rather short review.
What I found surprising, and what I was unaware of until after finishing Hillenbrand’s book, is that Louis Zamperini actually wrote and published his own memoir titled Devil at my Heels (first in 1956, then again in 2003) which is available used from Amazon.com. How do the two titles differ? Your guess is as good as mine, though it does seem a bit odd to me that Hillenbrand would want to tackle the subject of Zamperini’s life well after Zamperini himself had done so in his own words.
Then there’s Hillenbrand herself, an author that suffers from a severe case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome which leaves her largely stuck at home. The symptoms of the disease (pulled from Wikipedia, the ultimate in medical accuracy, I know) do not sound fun:
Symptoms of CFS include post-exertional malaise; unrefreshing sleep; widespread muscle and joint pain; sore throat; headaches of a type not previously experienced; cognitive difficulties; chronic, often severe, mental and physical exhaustion; and other characteristic symptoms in a previously healthy and active person. Persons with CFS may report additional symptoms including muscle weakness, increased sensitivity to light, sounds and smells, orthostatic intolerance, digestive disturbances, depression, and cardiac and respiratory problems. It is unclear if these symptoms represent co-morbid conditions or are produced by an underlying etiology of CFS.
To be able to write something so powerful and emotionally charged as Unbroken while suffering from such a debilitating disease is nothing short of astounding. Imagine for a moment that you decided to write a historical book about World War II, but you couldn’t leave the house to any of it. You had to conduct all of your research via the internet and all of your interviews via the telephone. That’s right; Hillenbrand never met Zamperini while writing the book, which is even more amazing.
Back to the book, and why, apart from Hillenbrand’s writing, the story of Zamperini is so enthralling. As a runner Louis competed in the 1936 Olympics and had a personal meeting with Adolf Hitler. Before the war it was widely speculated that he would be the first man to successfully run a mile in under four minutes. That dream was dashed however when Louis enlisted in the Army Air Forces in 1941.
During one fateful mission, Louis would find himself the victim of a plane crash, lost at sea, drifting for forty-seven days before being captured and enslaved as a prisoner of war by the Japanese military. The tortures Louis and other POWs had to endure at the hands of the Japanese were horrific, and Hillenbrand pulls no punches and spares no details when describing, as best as she can, what life must have been like for those that were captured.
Louis survives until the end of the war, but the transition back to civilian life is not easy for him. Perhaps the book’s most interesting section, and certainly the most surprising piece, is what becomes of Louie in post-war America.
Hillenbrand delivers a top-notch biography and Zamperini’s story is compelling, but still, I have to wonder what the differences are between her telling of Louis’ life and his own. Uh oh, I think I just added yet another title to my already toppling over to-read stack.