Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Things That I Read

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand

Grade: A

It is not often that I read nonfiction, but when I do by and large I'll read biographies, particularly those of people with whom I have a passing knowledge or fascination, or "adventure" stories: Lost City of Z, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Over the Edge of the World, etc. Every once and a while I'll chance upon something wonderful, something completely unexpected. In the case of Unbroken it started on a bored Saturday night at home with nothing to watch on TV. I turned on Netflix on Demand and browsed my queue and decided on a film that looked interesting based on the premise, but which had not appeared on my radar, despite the fact that it featured several major Hollywood actors (Colin Farrell and Ed Harris) and came out only two years ago. The film was called The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir, and it told the grueling "true" story of an escape from a Siberian prison camp. The movie was overall well acted and entertaining, though it suffered from certain narrative shortcomings and failed to live up to some of the quality last seen in Weir's Master and Commander, one of my personal favorites. The plot was intriguing enough, though, that I wanted to read a bit more about this "true story." Unfortunately, when I did a bit of research I learned that the book Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, on which the film was based, has been frequently derided by scholars as being almost entirely fabricated. I decided against reading it for that reason. However, browsing on Amazon I saw a number of recommended titles based on my interest in the film, among them Unbroken: A World War II story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. The blurb mentioned something about a downed aircraft and survival aboard a raft, so I thought I was starting a modern day Robinson Crusoe sort of story, which was perfectly fine with me. Given my long list of books to actually read in print, I decided to check out the audio read by the estimable Edward Herman, whose voice you have probably heard over countless stock film reels of aircraft on the History Channel.

Little did I know that when I picked up this book on a whim, I would be discovering a story more fascinating than any major Hollywood film I've seen in the past 5 years. Louis Zamperini was a troubled young son of Italian immigrant parents living in Torrence, California when he discovered he had a gift for running. This passion would lead him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the war began he became a bombardier, taking part in a crucial raid on Wake atoll among other endeavors. Then his plane was shot down and he survived aboard a life raft, fending off sharks and eating raw bird meat. And that is not even halfway through the book. The trials that this man had to endure are worthy of Job. Internment in a series of brutal Japanese prison camps resulted in horrific mental anguish, and some of the atrocities committed by guards are stomach churning. "Unbroken" is certainly not a read for the faint of heart. The whole of Zamperini's story I will not spoil here. In fact, I am really glad that I decided to listen to the audiobook because it prevented me from reading ahead to find out what happened next. I also made a conscious decision not to Google Zamp's name so I wouldn't know what was going to happen to him, which of his friends would make it out of the war unscathed, etc.

The writing is absolutely riveting and listening to the audio gave me a sense of urgency and captivated me utterly. I spent several lunch breaks just sitting in my car so I could hear the rest of the story. Truly, it was that good. I learned fascinating details about World War II, life in Japan, the Olympics, and post war America that were completely new to me. Zamperini, as Hillenbrand describes him, is a true American hero. Not a perfect man by any measure, but a man whose drive and fortitude are enviable, almost super-human. One brief note on the latter chapters in the story. While I am not a religious person, Zamperini's eventual coming to Christ seemed a genuine expression of gratitude and faith. Though I do not believe in God myself, I can only say that his faith and strength astound me, and seem a natural result from his ordeal. "Unbroken" is one of the best books I have read in ages. It was deeply affecting and engaging and I cannot recommended enough. I do actually hope that they make it into a film, because I think a great director could do a lot with his story. Given Hillenbrand's track record (see: Seabiscuit) it is altogether likely that somebody has optioned it already. I certainly hope that if a film is made, they truly do justice to the impossible life of this man.

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