UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand (FAN AND FLAME Book Reviews)

Louis Zamperini

A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, original 2010, paperback reprint July 29, 2014, 528 pages)

Have you ever wanted to know how to run a four-minute mile? Or what it would be like to cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship full of Olympic athletes? Or how to drop bombs from an aircraft? Or how to fend off ravenous sharks?

Or perhaps you want to know how to survive on a teeny yellow raft, drifting over 2,000 miles on the Pacific Ocean? Or maybe you want to know how deep underwater you must swim to avoid the lethal impact of bullets from an airplane? Or how to survive as a Japanese Prisoner of War when all you know is 500 calories a day from moldy seaweed broth, cold nights, beatings, more beatings, and hard labor?

But maybe you don’t want to know any of these things.

Perhaps you want to know how someone steeped in addiction, on the edge of divorce, and controlled by murderous rage—or in short, someone whose life is in a nosedive with double engine failure—could survive, and then go on to forgive his enemies.

If that’s you, then know this: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand will not teach you any of these things.

Well, that’s not exactly true; it might teach you a few of them. (When fending off sharks: open eyes wide, bear your teeth, and pound them in the nose.)

But Unbroken does tell the story of a man who experienced all of these things and more. Did I mention that Adolf Hitler wanted to shake Louie’s hand after his 5,000m race in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but because of where Hitler was sitting, he and Louie could not fully reach each other and only touched fingers?

Yes, Unbroken is – in that overused word – unbelievable.

If you have never heard of Louis Zamperini or the story of Unbroken, I suspect that will change this winter when the movie version, directed by Angelina Jolie, is released on Christmas Day (see trailer below).

Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit) spent seven years researching the Zamperini story, and it shows. Starting with the rebellious young Louie, the book runs us through his life with remarkable precision. Her writing style is sparse and understated, and yet at the same time profound, getting extraordinary mileage through the occasional key word with double and deeper meanings. As well, Hillenbrand is a master of juxtaposition.

unbroken, raft image from the movie

But it’s not only Louie’s life that is on display. As Hillenbrand tells Louie’s story, she invites readers into the story of every WWII airman and every Pacific POW – not unlike the way Tom Joad (The Grapes of Wrath) tells the story of every suffering, migrating Okie. And like the Joads, some WWII warriors fared better than Louie, and others, though it’s hard to fathom, fared worse.

In my copy of the book, there a transcript of an interview with the author. When asked what it was that specifically captivated her about Louie’s story, she writes this:

So many elements of Louie’s saga were enthralling, but one in particular hooked me… How can you tell of being victimized by such monstrous men, yet not express rage? His response was simple: Because I forgave them.

It was this, more than anything, that hooked me. How could this man forgive the unforgiveable? In setting out to write Louie’s story biography, I set out to find the answer.” (487-8, emphasis original)

In other words, Unbroken is the story of how the forgiveness of one’s enemies becomes believable.

Yet it is at this very point, the very epicenter of the story that shook her, that I am unsure whether Hillenbrand ever found her answer.

Louie Zamperini, however, found the answer. He found it at a Billy Graham Crusade in 1949. He was tricked into going by his wife; but after that night, everything about everything changed.

If Hillenbrand saw this – that is, if she found that the answer to ‘how radical forgiveness can happen’ is only found in the supernatural power of Christian conversion – then she doesn’t tip her hand; she lets readers connect the dots for themselves.

A few weeks ago, a friend remarked to me that she heard that the upcoming movie version “takes God out of the story.” I don’t know whether that’s true or not; we will all have to wait and see. But, based on the book, I’m not sure how much God really is in Hillenbrand’s story. And if God is in there, then he is there the way he is “there” in the book of Esther – the unnamed, mysterious hand of Providence: guiding, protecting, and saving his people. Louis Zamperini knew this ‘hand of Providence,’ and after reading his story, I know it better.

From the Preface

“All he could see, in every direction, was water.

“It was late June 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.

“The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days. Borne by an equatorial current, they had floated at least one thousand miles, deep into Japanese-controlled waters. The rafts were beginning to deteriorate into jelly, and gave off a sour, burning odor. The men’s bodies were pocked with salt sores, and their lips were so swollen that they pressed into their nostrils and chins. They spent their days with their eyes fixed on the sky, singing “White Christmas,” muttering about food. No one was even looking for them anymore. They were alone on sixty-four million square miles of ocean.” (Hillenbrand, Unbroken, xvii-xviii)