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Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. Random House, 2010, 528 pp.

This book is no easy read. The problem is not with Laura Hillenbrand’s writing. Any historian would envy her skillful weave of memoir, psychology, eugenics, B-24s, faith, and other subjects that would be disjointed were they not ingredients in the life of Louis Sylvie Zamperini. Nor is it with the unbelievable harshness of Zamperini’s tale of surviving 46 days on a raft in the Pacific followed by two years of suffering Imperial Japan’s hallmark brutality as a POW. That brutality has been the subject of thousands of books and not a few films. Rather, what will make this book difficult reading is that Hillenbrand crafted it as a mirror, not a lens, into Zamperini’s life. We are in his story, and it asks us, “Could you do this?”

Hillenbrand draws on Zamperini’s devil-boy childhood to address that question. He grew up stealing, fighting, lying, and running from the hands of local justice. Rather than heroics, he seemed marked for a life of crime, lengthy prison sentences, and perhaps a smoky, high-voltage end on “Old Sparky.” He was turned from this course by adventure as a hungry runaway and discovery that the state of California sometimes lobotomized recalcitrant juvenile delinquents like him. Turning his energy in a better direction, Louie became a champion track star—the youngest runner in the 1936 Olympics—and seemed destined for gold in the 1940 Tokyo games. Hillenbrand surmised that these years of “artful dodging” and redemption gave him the “resilient optimism” to carry him through the ordeals to come (p. 7). More to the point, his sister Rose simply said, “You could beat him to death, and he wouldn’t say ‘ouch’ or cry” (p. 9).

Compelling as it is, Hillenbrand’s assessment that Louie’s preadolescent brigandage somehow prepared him for heroism can only be the start of our own thoughts about the sources of courage and resilience. Certainly something sustained him through shark attacks, casual strafing by a passing Japanese bomber, and endless months of starvation and humiliation at the hands of captors selected for their self-righteous sadism. But all around him were thousands of men living through the same circumstances and worse. Where did their strength come from—they never stole pies in Torrance, California? Was there one universal characteristic common to the survivors, or were their individual fates tied to equally individual combinations of luck, physical condition, spiritual depth, will to live, artful dodging in the presence of gleefully murderous jailors, or what? Hillenbrand provides plenty of material for such questions in Louie’s experiences and those of other prisoners she discusses on the margins of the story. But, even then, this book only starts the discussion, leaving it to each individual to answer the question of “could I do this?”

Given the vast literature of the POW experience already available, the most practical part Hillenbrand’s narrative deals with Zamperini’s emotional recovery from the dehumanizing shame, guilt, and rage of his experience. His years immediately after the war were marked by a failed attempt to begin running again, an impetuous marriage, lost investments, and alcoholism. Finally, Louie found his redemption through faith at the altar of evangelist Billy Graham. Freed spiritually, he began a new life of youth work, public speaking, and face-to-face forgiveness of his Japanese captors. Again, Louie’s model of recovery is not universal. Not every survivor overcame the post-traumatic stress of prison camp through faith in Jesus. But, in Louie’s story, Hillenbrand gives warriors of all stripes a starting place from which to begin thinking about how to return or help others return to normalcy and productivity after descending into personal hells that even a gifted author cannot describe fully.  Read this book or listen to the audio version; you will grow professionally and personally from it. 

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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