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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

By Gene Seymour
2/1/2011 • Reviews, World War II Reviews

A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
By Laura Hillenbrand. 473 pp.
Random House, 2010. $27.

Laura Hillenbrand’s gifts for tempo, atmosphere, and empathy shaped Seabiscuit: An American Legend into a best-selling phenomenon. She made that Depression-era tale so vivid to contemporary readers that the horse and his handlers felt once again like tabloid heroes.

Since Hillenbrand has a remarkable affinity for never-say-die underdogs overcoming stiff odds and achieving miracles, Unbroken seems an almost inevitable follow-up. Its doughty protagonist is Louis Zamperini, who emerged from a delinquency-prone adolescence in Torrance, California to become a world-class runner with a penchant for strong finishes. He placed eighth in the 5,000-meter race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, but ran his last lap in an eye-popping 56 seconds. Zamperini was ready to do even better four years later at Tokyo’s Olympics. But then came World War II—which is where Unbroken’s story truly begins.

On May 27, 1943, Zamperini was serving as a turret gunner in his B-24, dubbed “the Green Hornet,” when it went down in the South Pacific while searching for a missing plane. Of the 11-member crew, only Zamperini and two others survived the crash; one of them, however, died after they had spent more than a month drifting in a rubber raft, living on storm water and whatever fish, even sharks, they could catch.

After 46 days at sea, Zamperini and his fellow survivor were picked up by Japanese sailors. As was the case with other American POWs in the Pacific Theater, their captivity was filled with torment and atrocity. Hillenbrand spares little detail in recounting two years of starvation, medical experiments, slave labor, and unrelenting torture. (One guard, Mutsuhiro “the Bird” Watanabe, is singled out for taking a kind of connoisseur’s pleasure in his sadistic treatment of Zamperini and his fellow captives.) Perhaps not surprisingly, the war’s aftermath offered little immediate relief to Zamperini, who went through a troubled stateside adjustment riddled with nightmares and alcoholism, before finally finding solace in religion.

This is the kind of page-turning saga that, as with Seabiscuit, practically writes itself. Unbroken, like its predecessor, will likely appear someday onscreen at a theater near you. Yet even with so many galvanic twists and turns tugging the reader along, this book feels as if it’s trying to sell, more than tell, its story—which, as it happens, has been told many times before in newspaper, magazine, and television accounts, not to mention a 2004 reprint of the protagonist’s own 1956 autobiography Devil at My Heels. The ground, though fertile, has been thoroughly plowed. Still, since Zamperini is still alive and apparently well at age 93, it’s reasonable to expect probing from a reporter with Hillenbrand’s obvious gifts to yield greater, deeper insights into his ordeal. This, after all, is what lifted Seabiscuit to well-deserved heights. Unfortunately, she’s content here to pile on the facts and let them do the work. Unbroken tells a good yarn, but it could have been more.

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2 Responses to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

  1. Glenn Raymond says:

    I’ve got to strongly disagree that the ground had been thoroughly plowed on this story before “Unbroken.” As someone who had already read quite a bit about Louis Zamperini before this book came out, I was struck by how much new material Hillenbrand found, and how her research made the story vastly richer and more edifying. Zamperini himself has repeatedly said that the author found out a huge amount about his story that even he had never known.

    Zamperini’s saga has always been told narrowly, from Zamperini’s perspective. Hillenbrand brings in the perspectives of so many people who witnessed the story, including Louis’ family and the other families on the home front, the Japanese spy who attended college with Louis, his pilot and fellow raft survivor, fellow POWs (including entries from secret, never-before-published POW diaries), and the Japanese guards in POW camps. Before Hillenbrand, no one had ever discovered the breathtaking story of the seven-year flight from justice of the villain guard known as “the Bird.” The “kill-all order,” under which the Japanese were set to murder all of the POWs, has never been explored in the depth that this book explores it. And within the smaller story of this one man, Hillenbrand tells the whole sweeping story of servicemen in the Pacific War. To say this is not groundbreaking is to do this book, and this author, a great disservice.

    As for reaching deeper into the story, I found Hillenbrand’s exploration of human resilience, and the role of dignity in survival, moving and illuminating. All told, this was a wonderful and deeply thought book.

  2. Chris Roberts says:

    Author Laura Hillenbrand has done her best to keep at a minimum “Unbroken’s” Louis Zamperini hand shake with Adolph Hitler at the 1936 Olympics. When I asked her why, when his teammate Jesse Owens was snubbed, he decided to shake Hitler’s hand, she replied, “Chris, it is a myth that Hitler snubbed Owens specifically.” Not true at all. Here’s what Zamperini had to say:

    “Hitler came and shook my hand after the race,” Zamperini recalls. “I was one of three Americans who shook his hand. But what happened was that one of his advisors told him that once he starts shaking hands, he’ll have to shake all of them. We all knew he wasn’t going to shake Jesse’s hand.”
    “The Official Web Site of The United States Olympic Committee, teamusa dot org, 2009/11/12.”

    It seem Louis Zamperini was fascinated by the Nazi’s, here is another incident:

    True to form and before departing for home, the troublemaker turned champion runner stole a Nazi flag off the Reich’s Chancellery. Caught by the Gestapo, Zamperini convincingly talked his way out of the predicament and proudly brought the flag home.
    “sports humanitarian dot com, 2008.”

    And after all these years, over half a century, this is what the man thinks of Hitler:

    Zamperini shook the Nazi leader’s hand and thought the man odd. “Like a dangerous comedian,” he said.
    “Veterans Journal,” Winter, 2006, Franklin County Veterans Service Commission, Columbus, Ohio.

    Really? A comedian? That’s a first in describing Hitler. Both Laura Hillenbrand and Louis Zamperini need to come clean about the Nazi question in the paperback version of “Unbroken” because now it is broken.

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