Back in 2011, one of my best friends recommended this book to me. We have often shared book recommendations and then subsequent coffee breaks, debating the merits of various works of literature. Although I highly respect his opinion, his profound adoration for history (in particular, the history of war) made me shy away from this book for the better part of 3 years. I greatly enjoyed Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand’s previous work, so maybe I was just being stubborn. On any note, after he recommended it once again, I picked it up this summer and settled in on our boat to read it. That lasted for about a week or two. Then I put the book down and ignored it for about two months. Not a glowing recommendation if you stop reading this post right here, I know. Resist the urge and keep reading…it’s worth it, I assure you. Finally, once I had settled into my fall routine with my kids in school and my college students well into their semester, I picked it up again with the decision that I would finish this book. No. Matter. What. One fun fact about me is that I detest leaving things unfinished. I am an anti-procrastinator. So going this long without finishing was bad enough and I was adamant that I was going to tackle this head on. I trudged through more difficult, history heavy, miltary heavy material. Then, the book picked up speed. After a little while, I had to pull myself away from the book and was anxious to return to it. The pull of this book was intense. And not because it was a beautiful, lovely story of a truly heroic man (which it is), but because I was absolutely horrified by what the people in this book had endured. It led me to a greater understanding of that period in time, and very importantly, of my own father. It helped me to understand what military men experience during war and how it shapes their personality and their futures.
Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a defiant young boy who later used that strong will (with much guidance from his older brother) to become a runner, subsequently training for and participating in the Berlin Olympics. After the Olympics, he continued to run and set his sights on the next Olympic Games. However, after becoming ill while in college at USC, he started to suffer a decline in speed. He took a job after college and while working, our country slid into war. In 1941, Louis Zamperini joined the Army Air Corps. This is the point where the book began to lose me. For over 70 pages the book describes the beginning of military life for Louis. The planes feature prominently in this novel and the discussion of flight patterns, types of planes and various missions was difficult for me to trudge through. But keep on, I most certainly did. After all, I was going to finish this book!
And then, the book began to wrap itself, ever so slowly, around my brain. It slithered in there and affected my daily thoughts and became all I could think about. After Louis’ plane crashes in the Pacific and he struggles for weeks on board a tiny life raft with no provisions and two fellow crewmen, you can’t help but stay glued to this book. Waiting for resolution, when death seems imminent (sharks are circling, there is no food, minimal water), I felt my own blood pressure rising with every page. When land finally, at last, comes into view, the men have already realized that they are not headed for friendly territory. The Japanese take these men as prisoners of war and from this point on, the stories become horrific. Learning the amount of torture that human beings are capable of inflicting is never easy to read, and the rest of the book reminded me of literature I have read regarding concentration camps in Germany. What Louis endures will pull at your emotions from every direction. The unimaginable amount of time he spends in the prison camp is incredibly detailed and Laura Hillenbrand was said by Louie to know his life with impressive familiarity. Louie stated “When I want to know what happened to me in Japan, I call Laura”.
The story continues when Louie returns home as a free man, yet struggles to fit into daily life. It was powerful to read of how difficult sleep was for him and how the notorious “Bird” (A Japanese militant who was increasingly vicious to his captives) always appeared in his dreams. However, when you learn about how Louie takes charge of his life and how vivacious he is throughout his life…you fall in love with the legend that is Louie Zamperini. He continued to run and pursue various athletic endeavors throughout his life. He even learned to skateboard in his seventies. He said to Pete, “When God wants me, he’ll take me”. And continued on his risky adventures.
Louie Zamperini died July 2, 2014. Coincidentally, that was just weeks before I bought this book, not even knowing of his death. RIP to Louie Zamperini, a true hero and an inspiration to everyone.