I think I have recommended Unbroken to everyone, whether they were asking for a book recommendation or not (Kindle here). Even though I read this a few years ago, I often still think about it and the incredible spirit of Louis Zamperini.
Unbroken is a story of how Louie, an Olympic-qualifying runner, became lost at sea and a prisoner of war and lived to tell the horrific tale. His plane crashed, leaving him afloat on raft for 47 days before washing ashore a Japanese island, where he became imprisoned.
So, in case you thought being lost at sea for 47 days–with two other soldiers, no food, and man-hungry sharks–wasn’t bad enough, he was also captured, starved, and tortured in Japanese war camps. Just wanted to make sure you got all of that.
But the thing I remember most about this story isn’t the atrocities. It’s the spirit and love that Louie embodies in spite of everything he goes through (it is also the terrifying sharks). The vignettes of hope–like a duck the prisoners take on as their mascot, or Louie’s friendships in unbelievable circumstances, or the back-to-life party doctors throw for Louie–are what make this book one of my favorites.
I first glimpsed Louie’s strength when he was adrift on a raft after his plane crashed. Eight of 11 men on the plane died, and Louie and the other survivors were lost at sea for a very long time. There is an incident on the raft that I still cannot think of without getting knots in my stomach. And when they finally reach land and you think they might get some relief, the land is Japanese.
Louie experiences unspeakable cruelty when he is taken prisoner, especially from a guard they call the Bird. The Bird focuses on Louie, I think, because he couldn’t beat Louie’s spirit from him. But Louie and the men consistently fight back however they can: “To deprive the Bird of the pleasure of seeing them miserable, the men made a point of being jolly.”
In one of many instances where Louie shows he is stronger than this cruelty, the Bird forces Louie to hold a heavy beam of wood and tells Louie that he cannot let it fall.
“He felt his consciousness slipping, his mind losing adhesion, until all he knew was a single thought: He cannot break me. Across the compound, the Bird had stopped laughing.”
Louie was beaten as he was holding the beam, and then he collapsed and was taken to the hospital. Louie had held the beam for 37 minutes.
That spirit and holding onto his dignity are what keep Louie alive during his time at sea and his imprisonment.
“Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it. The loss of it can carry a man off as surely as thirst, hunger, exposure, and asphyxiation, and with greater cruelty. In places like Kwajalein, degradation could be as lethal as a bullet.”
And when the war ends, and Louie can begin his trek home (not a spoiler guys, he is alive and interviewed for the book), he keeps that spirit–though not without difficulties and dark days.
“Seeing a table stacked with K rations, he began cramming the boxes under his shirt, brushing off an attendant who tried to assure him that he didn’t have to hoard them, as no one was going to starve him anymore.”
When Louie was given orders to fly out, he asked the doctors to keep him longer so his mother wouldn’t see him so thin. The doctor agreed, and also threw Louie “a welcome-back-to-life bash, complete with a five-gallon barrel of “bourbon””–a hodge podge of Coke syrup, water and whatever booze they could find.
These bright spots alone are worth the read. But Laura Hillenbrand’s voice and research are fantastic. Unbroken is beautifully written and easy to read–save for the horrific subject matter at times. And Hillenbrand’s extensive research includes even documenting newspaper interviews of prison guards years after they were assumed dead and then resurfaced. She interviews Louie and his family and treats the material with the same dignity Louie himself exhibits. Her footnotes are a good read in and of themselves, but the heroism throughout Unbroken is what makes it truly amazing.
(I bought this book on my own and am not being paid to write about it. But I am a part of the Amazon Affiliates program, so if you buy through my links on Amazon, I’ll receive a little bit of money for it.)