Tag Archives: history

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Every so often, maybe once every couple of years or so, I come across a book so engrossing, so compelling, that it takes on a drug-like quality. Whenever I’m not reading it, I’m wishing I was, and when I am reading it, I never want to stop. If life permitted me, I would have read Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken in one, well, unbroken sitting. The most amazing part of this book is that it is nonfiction. As a piece of storytelling and as a piece of history, it is a stunning achievement.

Hillenbrand first established her reputation by writing Seabiscuit, the basis for the film. In Unbroken, she tells the story of Louis Zamperini. In the opening of the book, we learn about Louie as a child– fractious, wild, untamed. It isn’t until he is directed towards athletics– track and field, specifically– that he harnesses that energy into something productive. And productive he is. In a few years he goes from local troublemaker to college star to Olympian in the 1936 Berlin games. At the outset of World War II, he becomes an officer in the Army Air Corps and works as a bombardier. When his plane crashes and he is forced to survive on a life raft with two other men with little chance of rescue, his trials are only beginning.

The book is a testament to the strength of human spirit and the will to survive. There are numerous others around Zamperini who cannot endure the brutal challenges he survives. Some give up, some fall apart, some run away. Yet Hillenbrand is careful to not overly glorify Zamperini. His shortcomings and struggles are also portrayed, and in the end he comes across as simply a man whose desire for life was so intense that nothing could steal that life from him, though his suffering exacts a toll on his spirit.
Hillenbrand’s book is meticulously researched. In the acknowledgements she lists pages of people and databases she mined to get her information. In fact, she held seventy-five interviews with Zamperini alone, until he even joked that she remembered more details of his life than he did. Beyond that, she interviewed family, friends, Army buddies, even Japanese relatives of those he fought against in the Pacific Theater.

Yet part of what makes this book so remarkable is how readable it is. Though there are passages that are saturated in historical facts, but every bit of research is used to give the readers context, so the story matters more. I think this is a shortcoming of many nonfiction books, and what turns some people off to history writing. When the writer becomes so enamored with the details and facts that they insist everything is shoved into the book, the story dries up. But when the history is used to give meaning to the story, the story comes alive.

For instance, in Unbroken, there is a lengthy section about the actions of Japanese officers and their vicious treatment of prisoners of war. At that point in the story, Zamperini was just starting to fly his bombing missions, so the information about POWs might seem out of place. Instead, it builds tension, causing the reader to see just what was at stake if a plane went down and its crew captured. So when– spoiler alert– Zamperini is captured, the reader is already terrified about what was in store for him.

I simply cannot recommend this book highly enough. Rare is the book that is both so rich in history and research– I feel like an expert on the WWII Pacific Theater now– and also so compelling a story that I could swear it was the work of a master novelist. For anyone with an interest in World War II, the psychology of imprisonment and survival, and in taut storytelling, read Unbroken.

And P.S. it has been made into a film directed Angelina Jolie, due out this December. So there’s that to look forward to, as well.

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Myth and Presidents’ Day

If this were any other Monday, I’d be teaching 3rd period right now, but it’s Presidents’ Day, so I’m blogging. And I’ve been thinking about the two presidents who get the combo-birthday treatment, Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. (Don’t combined birthdays suck when you’re a kid? Why would we do this to our most revered presidents?) Between history class and the History Channel, we have an overload of information and interpretation about these two great leaders. This post isn’t about the facts. It’s about the myths.

I’m using myths here in the deeper, Campbellian sense. I’m not doing an expose on the lies we’ve all swallowed. I’m not myth-busting (besides myths can’t be “busted,” not if we’re talking about them in the original sense). When I’m discussing myth, I’m talking about the stories that carry deepest meaning for us, that carry out ideal we seek to emulate in our daily lives. The factual truth of a myth is immaterial.

Back in high school, I took a class called Theory of Knowledge. It was a broad, interdisciplinary exploration of all the humanities.  It was there I was first introduced to the truer meaning of myth, and there that I first wrote on this topic. The actual paper I wrote may be long gone (or maybe not; I tend to hoard the writing I’m proud of. I’m sure it’s in a box somewhere), but I tackled the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree.

George Washington: I Gots to Axe You a Question

Long story short, for those completely illiterate in American legends, when George Washington was a little tyke, he used his hatchet and chopped down a gorgeous cherry tree on his family’s land. Dad comes home and flips out. “Who the $(@! chopped down my cherry tree?” Lil’ George says “I cannot tell a lie. I chopped down your cherry tree.” Dad gives him a big ol’ hug and says “No biggie. Your honesty is worth so much more than that tree!”

Aside from some of the obvious questions (six year old kid with a hatchet, unsupervised? Super parenting! And a politician who professes to be honest? Never heard THAT one before), the thing most people wonder is “Did this really happen?”

In a word– no. An author with the very 18th century name– Mason Locke Weems –was a bookseller who penned a volume of anecdotes about the new president. It contained the Cherry Tree story, along with several other “colorful” (fabricated) stories that he thought people would enjoy because they illustrated the values people wanted to see in a leader. And they ate it up! Weems said that the title was the second most popular on his shelves, aside from The Bible.

But the better answer to the question “Did this really happen?” is another question– “Does it matter?” Weems’s little tale about GW isn’t true from a factual point of view, but it symbolizes an ideal that we want in our leaders (honesty, even at the cost of personal consequences). Historically, it is untrue. but mythologically, it is deeply resonant.

Abraham Lincoln: Fear the Beard!

Beards are awesome. As a man who struggles in the facial hair department, I am in awe of our  legends. ZZ Top. Brian Wilson. Santa Claus (Made with 100% Yak Hair, for those of you who can’t grow one naturally). How about Abe Lincoln?* That slammin’ beard he sported was allegedly grown in response to a little girl’s letter, saying it would hide his weak chin and make him way hotter for the ladies. Fact or fiction?

Fact. That really happened. The girl’s name was Grace Bedell; she was only eleven at the time but she knew where it was at with face fuzz.

*By the way, I found this site in my very informal research about Lincoln. It provided me with 2 minutes of delight, and thus I share it with you.

But as with George Washington, it doesn’t really matter if this story is historically true or not. We love  a candidate who could be so in tune with the everyday citizen that he’d grow a beard on the advice of a little girl. Can you imagine that today? Campaign managers and PR specialists would go berserk. 24 hour news networks would overanalyze every hair (I can see Fox or MSNBC doing an ongoing “Beard Tracker” segment.) The myth of the President as a man of the people is enacted through the story of Lincoln’s beard; that’s why this little historical tidbit keeps coming back to us. Because it’s a myth, and myths don’t get busted.


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Gettysburg Revisited

So I was home sick last week (for only the 2nd time in 12 years) and there’s something about staying home sick that makes us revert into little children.  I was pretty sick as a kid, and so in a strange, unwelcome way, this sick day was a chance for me to flashback to my childhood. With many hours to kill and a desire to watch something I didn’t really have to watch, I popped in my DVD of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg has a prominent place in my life. I’ve been watching the film since its release in 1992. Before I was ever able to visit the battlefield, my mother’s cousin, who lives in southern P.A., sent me an envelope full of photos of key places, along with descriptions. Then, in high school, I read The Killer Angels and had my first visit to the battlefield. I then attended Gettysburg College my freshman and sophomore years, and during my spare time I wandered every inch of the National Park, often spending hours of alone time in the eerie, hallowed places. I taught myself to run by the Eternal Peace Light and Reynolds Woods; I huddled in the Pennsylvania Monument during a windstorm to meet my parents when they came to visit; I conducted interviews for an Anthropology 101 experiment with the tourists at the High Water Mark. The battlefield, the stories, the heroes, Gettysburg is in my bones.

I was a little wary of putting the DVD in the player. I haven’t watched the whole film in at least ten years, I suspect. My critical abilities are a lot sharper than they were a decade ago. When we’re children, we accept wholly the things that are important to us. The nuance of more sophisticated criticism (“I enjoyed this actor’s performance, while the other one seems stilted.” “I thought perhaps the musical score was overbearing,” etc) isn’t developed. And I suspect kids are better than adults at repeatedly viewing or reading the things they love. At least, I know I am. When I reread a book or rewatch a film now, it’s a pretty significant event. When I was twelve, watching Gettysburg or The Neverending Story or Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade again for the umpteenth time was hardly noteworthy. So I put the DVD in, huddled under my blanket with my tea and my animals, and watched.

The verdict: while my grown up critic saw things that the twelve year old didn’t, I was nevertheless swept up in the epic that captivated me as a young man. Sure, the acting ranges from competent (C. Thomas Howell) to stunning (Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels, and especially Richard Jordan, in his final performance). And there are Law and Order moments, where characters explain things that they’d never realistically explain to one another. There’s the question of PG violence– the movie was made for TV, and as a result, there is very little blood, masking viewers from the real horrors of war.

But the sweeping depictions of battle and heroism, the moving score, and the attention to minute historical detail made for a powerful viewing experience. And then there are the stories: Chamberlain, the professor colonel who rises to great glory at the Battle of Little Round Top; Robert E. Lee, the infallible general/god whose one moment of overconfidence dooms the Confederate army; Longstreet, the general whose mind is bent towards strategy over heroics, forced to command doomed attacks and take the blame for their failures; Armistead, facing Fate and his best friend on the battlefield; Pickett, young, cocky, eager to fight, and irrevocably scarred by Lee’s misuse of his division. To me, Gettysburg has never been an exercise in dry historical recitation. It isn’t “the turning point of the Civil War,” as every high school textbook will tell you. It is the collision of many men’s fates on a single battlefield.

Gettysburg is by no means worthless dreck; I’m certain other boys my age gorged themselves on far trashier fare as kids. But the film isn’t without flaws. Who cares, though? My realization after watching: when rewatching or rereading the stories that formed us in youth, criticism is meaningless. That film formed some of my fundamental ideas of heroism and warfare and kindled my fascination with the Civil War. And no amount of critical analysis can take that away.

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