Book Review: Unbroken (2010) by Laura Hillenbrand

Laura Hillenbrand is our generation’s non-fictional Hemingway, telling real stories with dispassion, incision, and grace. The New York Times called her style “crystalline.”  It is an amazing war story, with all of the evil, all of the virtue, and all of the mundane in a voice that is measured and removed. The subjects and her style make  a wining combination.

Her book Unbroken: a story of survival, resilience, and redemption (2010), which I just finished, is a thrilling adventure and a stirring life story. What makes it more powerful is that it’s all true. The author was able to interview its protagonist, Louis Zamporini, and get the man’s whole biography while in sound mind. It takes you through his juvenile delinquency, Olympic athleticism, service in the Air Force, hell in Japanese prison camps, alcoholism and PTSD after the war, and finally, religious conversion and redemption. His story never drags once.

There is a comforting passage on the technology of the human body–specifically how cognition adapts to the privation of sense and nutrition –when his life-raft is stuck in the doldrums on day 30-something:  

“Here, drifting in almost total silence, with no sense, other than the singed odor of the raft, no flavors on his tongue, nothing moving but the slow procession of shark fins, every vista empty save water and sky, his time unvaried and unbroken, his mind was freed of an encumbrance civilization had imposed on it. In his head he could roam anywhere. And he found that his mind was quick and clear, his imagination unfettered and subtle. He could stay with a thought for hours, turning it about . He had always enjoyed excellent recall, but on the raft, his memory became infinitely more nimble, reachig back further, offering detail that had always escaped him (transcribed from audible file).  

And Hillebrand is especially good with historical background, the details that give context for the action and make Louis’ story pop in the reader’s mind. One cannot put  down the book’s description of Pacific POWs and look at rice production in the same way. Nor can one but gasp at the accident rates of our Air Force–suddenly flying mass-produced new planes. Hillenbrand discloses that well over half of all deaths occured in non-combat circumstances, and that the accident and death rate of crews were well over 40%.  As we approach Memorial Day in the USA, the sacrifices of the now-dying “Greatest Generation” resonate strongly for me through this book.

There is also a point to be made about the point of literature here (its technology). This book, and other non-fictions whose realities could be described as intense, are suited to these Great Recession times. Today’s reader needs an echo in his/her literature of the life-wreckage, bankruptcies, and other disasters (natural and man-made) that surround him/her. To succeed as encouragement lit, a story needs to be a little worse than what the reader is experiencing, but still highly relatable. True, you’re not being abused by your boss as badly as Louis is by his captors, but their sadistic spirit may be the same. And although your body is not shutting down from starvation, it may yet have its significant issues. Literature like Unbroken, with its positive narratives, can give readers the necessary energy (hope) to persist. A recent story in the LA Times showed the effect of positive narratives on “closing the gap” in American higher education. Science may be proving that the stories you tell yourself are the root of your experience.

Don’t read the book looking for deep psychology:  Zamporini’s religious conversion is really the end of the story as far as character development goes. And, since she based the book on years of phone interviews, Hillenbrand and the reader may not be getting the three-dimensional man from an objective perspective, but do read it to get the narrative of a definite hero-who-lives-to-tell-it all. A life this rich, told this well, doesn’t come around very often.

Overall rating:   3.2/4 stars

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