By Laura Hillenbrand
Louie Zamperini showed an early inclination for pranks and trouble-making. His notoriety for petty theft, primarily of food, was matched only by his getaway runs. With the help of his older brother, Pete, Louie joined the high school track team, earned a scholarship to college, and set his sights on Olympic gold. Young and unseasoned, Louie made his Olympic debut running the 5,000 meter race at Berlin in 1936, a distance he had run only 3 times before his final heat, and came away without any medals. Undeterred, Louie continued training in hopes of running his favored distance, the mile, in the 1940 Olympics. Before his next opportunity, the Olympics were cancelled as the globe descended into WWII, and Louie was drafted to support US troops fighting in the South Pacific. What follows is an unbelievable, and almost unbearable, story of suffering and resilience. Louie spends weeks floating across the ocean with his raft-mates, sighting land only to discover they are in enemy territory. Subjected to years of emotional and physical torment in Japanese POW camps, Louie struggles to survive based on defiance, audacity, and any last shred of hope to which he can cling.
“Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand offers a remarkable story showcasing both the depths of human cruelty and suffering and also the indomitable human spirit and ability to persist in the face of adversity. With Hillenbrand as narrator, the story of Louie’s life unfolds starting with early childhood memories all the way through old age, demonstrating his impishness, exuberance, and uncompromising drive to achieve his dreams. Although the story focuses primarily on Louie’s experiences, Hillenbrand also branches off into commentary about other people connected to Louie’s life when helpful to do so. These side stories complement the narrative of Louie’s life, adding perspective and intrigue. As if Louie’s harrowing circumstances and narrow escapes weren’t enough to keep readers hanging, sharing the experiences of other soldiers, leaders, and family members increases the sense of emotional investment in Louie’s trials and tribulations. Just when it seems the saga is about to end, Louie faces new and equally terrible challenges, surviving only because he has no other option. Thoroughly researched, Hillenbrand offers detailed and accurate information about the Pacific stage of WWII that goes well beyond basic geography of the largest ocean in the world and highlights of major events during the war.
This book is almost impossible to put down. The story of an underdog from beginning to end, the story of Louie’s life is compelling, gripping, and inspiring. I was first interested in this book thinking it would be a running biography, and was not at all disappointed when I discovered that was only a small part of the story. Although the horrors he faced at times seemed overwhelming and unbearable, I never felt hopeless when reading this book. Shocked and disbelieving, yes, but never hopeless. This book also made me want to read more books about the Pacific stage of WWII, and any book that inspires further reading is well worth reading in the first place.