Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is the heart-rending, gut-wrenching biography of Olympic runner and WW II veteran Louis Zamperini. From his delinquent adolescence through his harrowing experiences as a prisoner of war to his redemption at a Billy Graham crusade, Hillenbrand tells Zamperini’s story, flaws and heroism, bravery and failures, without pulling any punches. Her presentation is an honest, straightforward portrayal of the man.
The main focus of the book is Louis’ experience in WW II as a bombardier. Shot down over the Pacific, Louis endures untold weeks adrift on a leaky raft, surrounded by sharks, striving to help two raft mates survive. One of his fellow airmen dies. Louis and his friend, Russell Phillips, miraculously avoid death when a Japanese plane strafes them.
They are captured and Louis’ nightmare really begins.
Fiction writers are advised to try to think of the worst thing that could happen to your character and make it happen to them in the book.
This is what happens to Louis. In real life. Wretched conditions, limited and unhealthy food, daily brutal and inhumane physical abuse from a prison guard. Louis was singled out, apparently because of his fame as a runner. The Japanese never reported him as a POW which denied him certain rights and protections.
Hillenbrand holds nothing back. The degradations and abuse Louis (and other prisoners) suffered are rendered in graphic, sometimes hard-to-read detail. The cruelty builds with each page. It is amazing to discover how bestial some humans can become. It is also amazing to watch Louis never give in to the abuse, to be a true hero.
Hillenbrand presents the anguish and grief the families at home went through. The army first declared Louis missing in action, then dead. She describes the heroism of the POW officers and leaders without hyperbole.
The suspense builds throughout. As the war is ending, the Japanese threaten to murder all the POWs rather than release them.
But Louis’ horror didn’t end with the surrender of Japan. Hillenbrand chronicles the hard realities and difficulties Louis faced as he tried to adjust to life after the war: alcoholism, a damaged marriage and other relationships, financial setbacks piling up, his descent into depression and withdrawal.
We follow Louis through his dramatic turnaround as he finds Jesus after reluctantly attending a Billy Graham crusade. Louis makes s dramatic one-hundred-eighty turn in his life, saving his marriage and devoting himself to living a Christian life. Including the ultimate manifestation of forgiving his captors, including the one guard who so brutally abused him.
Unbroken is an eye-opening book into the horrors of war and the survival and redemption of one man.
I rarely give 5 stars to a book. This is one of them.
If you read one book this year, read Unbroken.