Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Wednesday, June 19, 2013


Unbroken
Though all three men faced the same hardship, their differing perceptions of it appeared to be shaping their fates. Louie and Phil's hope displaced their fear and inspired them to work toward their survival, and each success renewed their physical and emotional vigor. Mac's resignation seemed to paralyze him and the less he participated in their efforts to survive, the more he slipped. Though he did the least, as the days passed, it was he who faded the most. Louie and Phil's optimism, and Mac's hopelessness, were becoming self-fulfilling.

By now, Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken has been on countless award lists and reader best-of lists. It has even won quite a few awards and after reading Unbroken, it isn't hard to see why. I waited a good three years before trying to read Unbroken because of the tremendous hype that followed this book (for good reason). I listened to the first quarter of this book in the car by myself and caught up with the rest of it with the husband while on a road trip to New York / Niagara.

Laura Hillenbrand has another hit book under her name - Seabiscuit, which I haven't read yet but I did watch the movie based on this book, a long time ago. So long ago that I didn't like the movie because it was about horses (I never did like watching movies about animals as a kid unless they were animated). Unbroken is as different as can be from Seabiscuit, though both are set against the same backdrop (World War 2). Louis Zamperini, the protagonist of Unbroken, grew up wild and defiant, always getting into trouble and disappointing his teachers and parents. His brother, Pete, taught him to channel his wild energy into running, an exercise that bored him initially but soon became his constant obsession and escape. He was such a fast runner that he was breaking records left, right and center. He had his eyes set on the 1936 Olympics, but failed miserably in his race due to poor fitness levels and overeating. (Honestly, this is one aspect of the book that baffled me. How could a person who had trained so hard and dreamed so much about the Olympics stumble so easily at the eleventh hour?) He decided that he had learned enough about the Olympics that he was going to aim for the next Olympics. There was not going to be another one. The war had other plans for him.

Louis enlisted in the Army Air Corps and was stationed in Hawaii. A particular bombing mission had destroyed his plane and so, one day, Louis accompanied his pilot Phil and a few other crew members on a particularly unfit plane called the Green Hornet on a search-and-rescue mission. Unfortunately for them, their plane had some serious hiccups and plummeted them straight into the middle of the Pacific ocean. With only three survivors (Louis, Phil and their bombadier, Mac) coming up to get on to a raft and no idea of where they were or in which direction they were drifting, their chances of survival were slim.

Most of the rest of the book focuses on that raft journey and the following capture and torture in Japan. To summarize thus, is to belittle this book, because in reality, what followed was an unbelievable story of survival, endurance, and human cruelties. If this was fiction, I would have probably said that the author made excessive use of manipulation, coincidences and graphic descriptions. The fact is most definitely stranger and usually more horrific than the fiction, and Louis' story proves that. How he survived the intense torture at the Japanese PoW camp, especially considering the sadistic interest a certain warden, Mutsuhiro Watanabe, had on him, is a testament to his (and other PoWs') will to survive. Watanabe, also called as The Bird by inmates, was bipolar. He would be exceedingly charming one instant and fly into a terrible rage the next. Anyone who had his attention, usually benefited from his debilitating torture methods.

Hillenbrand writes with creativity and intrigue. It is hard to put down the book, or in my case, stop the audio at any point without listening to one more sentence. The narrator, Edward Herrmann, also did a great job of narrating Louis' story with all the right inflections, emotions and tones. Still, most of the book was more a narration than a character sketch. Louis' actions let us see the person he is but to me, only the beginning and the end of the book portrayed the most detailed sketches of his persona. Somehow, while he was at war, the narrative becomes less personal and more journalistic, so that, I could never really be sure about what he was thinking or how he was coping, other than the obvious answer of "Not well at all".

The last few chapters, where we learn about the effect of the war on Louis, were clearly the hardest to read. Just as in the case of so many men who went to war, the pre-war Louis had vanished. There was none of that determination, persistence, commitment or happiness that used to define him. There was only despair, alcoholism, rage and depression, all of which worked to destroy him slowly. Hillenbrand eloquently paints a picture of self-destruction, which is obvious to all but Louis.

In a nutshell... Unbroken is one of those books that left me thinking and Wiki-ing for a long time after finishing the book.


I borrowed this audiobook from the good old library.

9 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Everytime I read a review I think, why haven't I read this yet? Especially because I loved Seabiscuit so much! Must get to this one! :--)

bermudaonion(Kathy) said...

I really need to read this book. A non-reading friend of mine loved it and, for me, that says a lot.

RiverCityReading said...

This is one of those books I'm fairly sure I would adore, but haven't picked up yet. I can't resist a book that gives me the urge to fall down a Wikipedia rabbit hole.

Care Haner said...

This has been chosen as our HS summer read and it baffles me because it is so long! and still rather expensive ($15 for Kindle last I checked?!) for one to recommend to students. but anyway. I'm resisting this. I think I've heard WAY too much about it.

On the other hand, I do appreciate the author's talent. Seabiscuit was an incredible incredible read. It's not just about horses - it's about the personalities involved and the struggles and the joy he gave to so many people.

techeditor said...

I read this BEFORE I heard the hype. Here's what I thought.

UNBROKEN is nonfiction. I’m afraid many readers will miss this book for that reason. They think nonfiction is dull. But I promise, UNBROKEN is not dull. It’s a can’t-put-it-down book that will keep you up at night.

If you expect a summary of what happens, I’m sorry. It would be unfair to you. I found the book un-put-downable just because I wasn’t familiar with Louie’s story. I would be doing you a disservice by summarizing the book’s various parts.

Do yourself a favor: don’t read the book flap or other reviews, either, until you’ve read the book yourself.

I can tell you this. UNBROKEN begins with a prologue. Louie and two other men are floating on a rubber raft in the ocean. They’re starving to death and weak when a jet flies low over them. Louie thinks it is American, and they are about to be saved. But it’s not. What happens on that ocean is really bad. But after the prologue and after the story begins with Louie’s early life to his experiences as a runner to the Olympics to the military, it then keeps getting worse.

Even so, I didn’t think this was a depressing book. I’ll admit, sometimes it was hard to read, and, if you’re like me, you may get so caught up in the story you’ll even get a headache at times. I wanted to keep reading because, even though bad kept happening, Louie kept overcoming.

Hillenbrand continues the story after Louie’s military service, and we see his (and others who were with him) ability and inability to cope. We see lives forever changed, often disastrously.

And we also see . . . . Well, I can’t continue without giving away what you should read and not anticipate because of something I said.

I read a lot but usually find only one, maybe two, books a year that are so wonderful I can’t speak highly enough of them. This is one of those books.

techeditor said...

DO NOT "resist" this book! What a shame that would be!

Athira / Aths said...

Thank you!


Your son being a Marine is a good enough reason not to read this book. Unbroken is definitely a wonderful book so you could shelve it for future reading. :)

Lisa Sheppard said...

This one was a huge hit with my book club - so much to discuss. You just keep thinking it can't get any worse for Zamperini and it does.

Athira / Aths said...

Exactly! I was amazed at how many things went wrong and still he persisted. It was an impressive read.