I think that it might just be one of the best books I read in my life.
How’s that for a prediction?
I have Janet’s glowing review to thank for my picking up of this biography. I don’t really know what to say about this book (‘though I’ve already written about five or six reviews of it in my mind!) other than READ IT. I don’t want to give away any spoilers at all, so I won’t say much in the way of summary. The subtitle of the book, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, sums it up pretty well. If you need a little more information, here it is in the words of the author, Laura Hillenbrand:
Eight years ago, an old man told me a story that took my breath away. His name was Louie Zamperini, and from the day I first spoke to him, his almost incomprehensibly dramatic life was my obsession.
It was a horse–the subject of my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend–who led me to Louie. As I researched the Depression-era racehorse, I kept coming across stories about Louie, a 1930s track star who endured an amazing odyssey in World War II. I knew only a little about him then, but I couldn’t shake him from my mind. After I finished Seabiscuit, I tracked Louie down, called him and asked about his life. For the next hour, he had me transfixed.
Growing up in California in the 1920s, Louie was a hellraiser, stealing everything edible that he could carry, staging elaborate pranks, getting in fistfights, and bedeviling the local police. But as a teenager, he emerged as one of the greatest runners America had ever seen, competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he put on a sensational performance, crossed paths with Hitler, and stole a German flag right off the Reich Chancellery. He was preparing for the 1940 Olympics, and closing in on the fabled four-minute mile, when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier. Stationed on Oahu, he survived harrowing combat, including an epic air battle that ended when his plane crash-landed, some six hundred holes in its fuselage and half the crew seriously wounded.
On a May afternoon in 1943, Louie took off on a search mission for a lost plane. Somewhere over the Pacific, the engines on his bomber failed. The plane plummeted into the sea, leaving Louie and two other men stranded on a tiny raft. Drifting for weeks and thousands of miles, they endured starvation and desperate thirst, sharks that leapt aboard the raft, trying to drag them off, a machine-gun attack from a Japanese bomber, and a typhoon with waves some forty feet high. At last, they spotted an island. As they rowed toward it, unbeknownst to them, a Japanese military boat was lurking nearby. Louie’s journey had only just begun.
That first conversation with Louie was a pivot point in my life. Fascinated by his experiences, and the mystery of how a man could overcome so much, I began a seven-year journey through his story. I found it in diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs; in the memories of his family and friends, fellow Olympians, former American airmen and Japanese veterans; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. Along the way, there were staggering surprises, and Louie’s unlikely, inspiring story came alive for me. It is a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.
The culmination of my journey is my new book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I hope you are as spellbound by Louie’s life as I am.
While reading this story, I kept thinking about Sherry’s plea that what we need in Christian fiction is truthier, not racier, fiction. Well amazingly enough, this story isn’t fiction, but it’s plenty “truthy.” I usually wouldn’t even consider comparing a work of nonfiction to a work of fiction–nonfiction is usually much heavier, often in subject matter, but almost always in its telling. While I was reading Unbroken, though, I kept thinking how novel-like this story, in its nearly flawless telling, is. I mean for this to be the best of compliments, since I spend most of my reading time reading fiction. Unbroken is well-researched, as the fifty pages of notes at the end of the story attest. Laura Hillenbrand excels at distilling a life story down to its essential parts, even a story as difficult and profoundly inspiring as Louis Zamperini’s.
I usually think of authors as people who are gifted, and as I’ve already mentioned, this is certainly true of Hillenbrand. However, the refrain in my mind as I read this story was this: What a privilege to get to write this man’s story. He is a hero of the first order, and this book is a testimony to the human spirit and the grace of God. I haven’t written much about why I call my blog “Hope Is the Word,” but it comes from a quote from Les Miserables: “Hope is the word God has written on the brow of every man.” I like to read books that offer hope to their readers, and this one most certainly does. I did a little internet research on Laura Hillenbrand, and it turns out that she has had her own struggles, and her spirit has been unbroken through it all, too. I couldn’t help but think she and Zamperini have something in common.
Well. What else can I say? This book is amazing. Please read it, and when you do, come back and tell me about it. I’d love to discuss it in the comments.