My parents read this book years ago and recommended it to me. Unbroken is a brilliant piece of historical non-fiction by Laura Hillenbrand that tells the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner and WW2 POW, and his comrades. This book was highly talked about when it was first published back in 2010, and it was also made into a critically acclaimed movie in 2014, which I haven’t seen yet.
The book starts by telling the story of Louie’s unusual childhood. A rebel from an early age, Louie was getting into enough trouble by middle school that his family feared for his future. He discovered a talent for running, though, which transformed his life. He went from wayward teen to Olympic athlete in just a few years, and logged one of the fastest final laps ever in the Olympic 5k in 1936. Hillenbrand’s historical insight is woven so beautifully throughout these early sections that as a reader you can feel the political tensions rising without the narrative ever becoming textbook-like.
Once war pops up on the horizon, Louie joins the Army Air Corps and is stationed in Hawaii. After surviving a terryfying battle over Wake Atoll in the Pacific, Louie’s team is sent out on a routine search and rescue mission one afternoon. This seemingly harmless mission takes a turn when thier plane malfunctions and goes down in the South Pacific. Louie and two of his comrades survive 47 days on a life raft, physically battling starvation, dehydration, and shark attacks only to be captured by the Japanese.
Hillenbrand does a nice job explaining how the guards at the Japanese POW camps were groomed to disregard humanity. Although the kinds of horrors inflicted upon Louie and his fellow POW were absolutely despicable, I felt like it was important to explain how much evil can be born during war. Louie passed through several different POW camps, each one worse than the last. The most specific antagonist in the book was a sadistic guard named Watanabe or “the Bird” who targeted Louie, inflicting horrible violence and psychological torture upon him, which haunted Louie’s dreams for years after the war.
I liked how Hillenbrand did not sugar coat the physical conditions that the POWs experienced during this time. The starvation and malnutrition, the lack of medical care, the constant violence and physical torture were all hard to stomach at times throughout the book. However, the title and theme of the brook, how the human spirit can remain unbroken throughout so, so many hardships, was always right there, alongside the horrors.
In the end, Louie was rescued, and faced an incredibly challenging recovery back home. It took several weeks to restore Louie’s physical health after over two years as a prisoner of war, but it took a lot longer for Louie to recover psychologically. Louie’s ongoing struggle with PTSD nearly ruined his marriage, but a meaningful re-connection with his Christian faith helped him to recover in the end. He dedicated the rest of his life to helping young people and raising a family. Louie’s final act of forgiveness and the overall message of hope and resilience left me feeling shockingly warm and fuzzy in the end.
This book really is all it’s cracked up to be. Although it’s not a quick or a bright read, it’s compelling and thoughtful. Books like this (ie, books that are not totally frivolous) usually take me upwards of a month to read, but this took me about two weeks. So if you haven’t read this yet, get on it. You won’t regret it.