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.