Friday, December 16, 2011

Hillenbrand Captures The Incredible Story Of Louis Zamperini: Unbroken

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Corps B-24 bomber crashes into the Pacific Ocean and disappears, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. It would be hours before the Army Air Corps would learn that the plane was missing. Even when it did, the chance of rescue was slim for the three men who barely survived.

The two rafts that a young lieutenant, along with two other crew members, had managed to tether together was little more than a dot the expansive blue ocean. Their whereabouts were largely unknown and the ocean was already sweeping them deeper and deeper into enemy territory.

The notion of capture, however terrifying the stories of abused, tortured, and murdered prisoners were, was preferable to the fate they anticipated. Without survival rations and barely enough water to wet their lips, they would eventually become a meal for the sharks that swam lazy loops around them.

Unbroken: A World War II Story Of Survival, Resilience, And Redemption. 
When Laura Hillenbrand opens the story, she puts readers right in the raft with the men, already weeks since they ditched their plane. It's virtually impossible not to be dragged in with them in the short span of a four-page preface, especially as the men light two of their last remaining flares to grab the attention of a plane flying far overhead, only to learn that the pilot has no intention of helping them.

As the Japanese bomber circles around, the sea around them erupts in gunfire. And the men are given a choice. Lay on the rafts as unmoving targets or jump into the water, where the sharks are still waiting.

It's with this image in their heads that what some might mistake as a historical war novel is something else entirely. Although the story mostly reads as smooth as fiction, Hillenbrand paints an inspired story that is at times as hard to fathom as real as she recounts the life of an amazing man from his perspective as well as remnants of other servicemen letters, diaries, accounts, and historical research.

The story itself starts from the earliest beginnings of a man as a young boy growing up in a small house in Torrance, California. He was the rebellious, undisciplined, and dangerous 12-year-old, accurately described in the title of the first chapter. The One-Boy Insurgency, a.k.a. Louis Silvie Zamperini, was prone to fights (which he lost), thievery (which often resulted in being caught), and incredulousness against any form of authority (even the police).

Hillenbrand painstakingly conveys just how perilous such a path for anyone to take in 1930s. It wasn't uncommon for them to be spirited off to juvenile detention or worse, either committed to an institution and perhaps indifferently exposed to tuberculosis. In fact, infractions for far less than Zamperini mustered could have resulted in the worst of punishments.

From an Olympic champion to a prisoner of war. 

Fortunately, it was his brother who helped channel all of his uncontrolled energy into track, which spared Zamperini from such a fate. And the result of this newfound direction would take him farther than anyone could have ever anticipated. It took him to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Germany, the same one dominated by Jesse Owens.

There, although finishing eighth in the 5,000 meter run, his final lap set new records. His finish was so fast that even Adolph Hitler would ask to meet him. This meeting would only be eclipsed by Zamperini's decision to climb a flagpole and steal the personal flag of Hilter.

Zamperini's showing at the 1936 Olympics, at a distance that wasn't even his preferred race, virtually ensured him a spot on the 1940 Olympic team. He, of course, would never have the chance to race. The Olympics were to be held in Tokyo, Japan, and were cancelled at the outbreak of World War II.

Eventually, Zamperini would still make it to Tokyo, but in a way he never imagined. After surviving 47 days at sea, he and Russell Allen Phillips were eventually captured by the Japanese Navy. Both men were held in captivity and severely tortured, with Zamperini eventually transferred to Ofuna, an infamous "high-value" prisoner camp where he was tormented by Mutsuhiro Watanabe (a.k.a. The Bird). Watanabe ranked seventh on General MacArthur's 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan.

Like many men who serve in the military during times of war as well as those who become prisoners of war under the harshest and cruelest of captors, Zamperini struggled for many years after his release. Nightmares, alcoholism, and a strong desire to return to Japan for the sole purpose of murdering The Bird engulfed him. It might have killed him too, had Zamperini not rediscovered the same resilience that helped him survive.

A couple graphs about author Laura Hillenbrand. 

Hillenbrand, who suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, became a well-known author after her first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. She said at the time that she was compelled to tell the story because she found so many fascinating people who lived a story that was improbable. The same can be said about her second book, perhaps changing the adjective improbable to impossible.

What makes her work in Unbroken immeasurably unforgettable is that although the story is easily classified as a biography, it doesn't read like a biography. Throughout the story, Hillenbrand manages the pace of everything that occurs by breaking away from Zamperini to flesh out a much more global view of the Pacific theater of war and, occasionally, from the eyes of other servicemen.

Unbroken By Laura Hillenbrand Breaks 9.9 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Sometimes people say that there are no more true heroes among us. And yet, by the measure of the legacy that Louie Zamperini still lives to this day, he proves that there are many who walk among us, if only we take the time to look for them.

Unbroken is the near-perfect book of an inspired life. There is no question that Zamperini is an inspiration. Had the book, like his life, been even more carefully constructed, I would have had no problem calling it a 10. However, even at 9.9, one has to forgive the writer for sometimes losing her readers in a sea of facts as well as the editors who carelessly missed pronoun inconsistencies when personal diaries were woven into it.

With the possible exception of some people having some misgivings of faith that is sometimes front and center in the life of Zamperini or perhaps the stories of what was endured by prisoners of war, this is a remarkable book that rekindles the human condition and spirit. It will leave you with more than you could ever possibly have before reading it. It is as authentic as they come.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is available at Amazon and the book can be found at Barnes & Noble. You can also download Unbroken via iBooks or listen to it as an audiobook, available though iTunes. Read by Edward Herman, the audio doesn't lose a beat, frequently adding to the fear, suspense, awe, and calm experienced by the servicemen. Herman was the perfect pick.
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