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.