In Honor of Veteran’s Day, Review of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—A Moving True Story to Read & Weep

November 11th is Veteran’s Day in the US.  Other countries call it Remembrance Day (UK and the Commonwealth), Armistice Day (France and Belgium) or Independence Day (Poland), but we’re all celebrating the same thing.  Funny thing is, most peopleespecially young peopledo not know the day actually commemorates the end of World War 1.  After four long years of fighting in WWI hostilities formally ended with the German surrender “at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” of 1918.   It was called the “war to end all wars” – but it was not, was it?  Twenty-one years later, World War II began, and we’re fighting still.  

Usually I commemorate Veteran’s Day by posting on Facebook the poem “In Flanders Field” by John McCrae, (from “Some Corner of  a Foreign Field-Poetry of the Great War“) but instead I’ve linked to it.  Today, I think in particular of Louie Zamperini, who is 93-years-old, a veteran of WWII and the subject of the most beautiful, difficult, wonderful biography I’ve read in a long time.  Louie, Happy Veteran’s Day—for all the horror you saw and endured—I hope there’s a beautiful day ahead for you.  I hope veterans of our current wars can find peace as you did. 

The title says it all: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Many, many others have reviewed this book, notably the NY Timeswhere the book reached no. 3 on the best seller list–and countless bloggers.  I suppose their reviews compelled me to buy and read itand I’d encourage you to do the same.  It is quite simply the most moving story I’ve ever read about the human spirit and triumph over adversity. I defy you to read this amazing true story and not weep buckets.

In Unbroken, author Laura Hillenbrand picks up the themes of perseverance and triumph against adversity that were prominent in her first book, “Seabiscuit.” This time, she  recounts the extraordinary true life of Louie Zamperini, American track star, Olympian, WWII bombardier, and prisoner of war.  Hillenbrand writes with precision and clarity—there is no overblown prose, no emotionally charged adjectives.  They are not needed—this is sharp story-telling that grabs you and keeps you turning the pages in horror, in hope and finally in joy.

Louie Zamperini was a bit of a hooligan in his youth until he found his talent as a track star—eventually heading to the 1936 Munich Olympics.   Pre-WWII, Zamperini was considered to be the runner most likely to break the 4-minute mile.  But when the US entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Louis enlisted in the Army Air Corps and became a bombardier, flying in the Pacific theatre.

In May 1943, the B-24 Liberator carrying Louie crashed into the Pacific. Louie survived, and spent 47 days on a raft before landing on Wake Atoll—and being captured by the Japanese.  His time as a Japanese POW-singled out because of his former notoriety in the Olympics—is difficult and emotional reading.  Louie and his fellow POWs endured truly unspeakable torture.   And even though I knew from the start that Louie Zamperini would survive, I could not imagine in what kind of mental or physical state.  This is non-fiction that you wish was fiction, because the truth pushes the bounds of believability—both of what one human being will inflict upon another, and what a human being can endure.  Indeed, Louie copes post-war with flashbacks, trauma by turning to alcohol.

Olympian Louis Zamperini carrying the Olympic Torch

When Louie finds peace post-war, by forgiving his captors and torturers, that is when the tissues come out.   I cried the last third of the book.  But it is beautiful, and moving, and I cheered for Louie’s humanity and spirit.

As Louie’s story unfolds Hillenbrand includes fascinating research on the war in the Pacific, bombers statistics, POW facts—and this background gives the reader context understand both the enormous risks taken by bomber planes in WWII, and the widespread torture tactics, yet also how much more extreme Zamperini’s treatment was as a POW.  You realize how miraculous Louie’s survival from the bomber plane crash was, let alone his survival of the events that unfold.

Louie’s WWII story is not unique—hundreds, maybe thousands, of planes crashed into the Pacific.  Thousands of allied troops were captured by the Japanese and faced torture and hardship.  Louie’s return from the war, his alcoholism and PTSD were also not unique–they are widespread today.  What is unique is Louie’s high profile pre- and post-war and his ability to overcome tremendous adversity.  The miracle is that Louie survived to tell his story and speak for many who did not.

I love a good WWII story-though admittedly I’ve read less non-fiction than fiction (Charlotte Gray, Atonement, Sarah’s Key, among great historical fiction reads).  I also love WWII movies—”Bridge over the River Kwai,” “The Great Escape”, “The Eagle Has Landed,” “Guns Of Navaronne”…and I can watch endless episodes of  “Band of Brothers.” When Universal makes “Unbroken,” I’ll be first in line, Kleenex at the ready, for this epic story about the endurance of the human spirit and its capacity for forgiveness.

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7 comments on “In Honor of Veteran’s Day, Review of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken—A Moving True Story to Read & Weep

  1. Carolyn O'Hara says:

    Birdsong led me to Goodbye to All That, and I’ll put Testament of Youth on my list, as well as Unbroken.

  2. Rachel Kesterton says:

    Hi Geri, you have to read Birdsong. It’s the most powerful book I’ve ever read on the First World War. I haven’t read Unbroken – it sounds good. My book group has just read “Those who save us” by Jemma Blum. I wouldn’t have touched it with a barge pole if I hadn’t been forced, but I am so glad I read it. It’s a novel about the second world war and recounts the story of a young German woman who many would see as a collaborator with the Nazis, It would have some resonance with you (only cos of the midweat connection I hasten to add!) in that the story is revealed when an American lady living in the midwest accidentally stumbles upon the truth about her mother who married an American soldier stationed in Berlin at the end of the war and moved to the states. It is the most thought provoking book I have read all year, bar none.

    • Hi Rach! More powerful than Testament of Youth? I will have to add it to the large stack of books (both e- and print) that decorate the various rooms of the house. I saw on a blog recently that there is an upsurge in WW2 historical fiction (Reading the past link here).

  3. rich brandt says:

    Geri and readers…Concerning WW2 books and films. I read Shining Through many years ago and loved it. It was made into a Micheal Douglas/Melanie Griffith film which didn’t review well. Two amazing films I highly recommend are Enigma with Kate Winslet, and Charlotte Gray with Cate Blanchette. She also did one a couple years ago with Clooney but I can’t recall the name. There are a couple books/films concerning homosexuals and the holocaust which are important to know. Also, concerning WW2, Cabaret had war as a back drop but the original film, based on the same book title was, I Am A Camera, by Christopher Isherwood.

    • Hey Rich –
      I remember Shining Through! (Last scene, on the train tracks?) and it was a little schmoopy so likely Hollywood ruined a good book! Loved Charlotte Gray though! (Why would I not, there’s that Scottish connection). I have a copy of Enigma on my bookshelf but have not read…always on the lookout for good WW2 reads and films.

  4. Judith says:

    Hi Geri
    Unbroken sounds like a great read and you have given me an idea what to buy Calum for Christmas. I loved Charlotte Gray too – have you read Birdsong, also by Sebastian Faulks?

    • Birdsong is on my bookshelf, but I have not read it yet. (I could read for a year with all the things on my bookshelf I have not yet read.) Another great read, this one about WWI, is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Calum will love it and we can talk about it live in May on my research trip to Scotland!

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