Wednesday, January 23, 2013

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

I don’t read a lot of non-fiction and when I do it is usually because I chose the book for the Let’s Talk Books discussion group here at C-SPL.  Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience,and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand has been on the New York Times bestseller list for over 112 weeks and one of my New Year’s resolutions is to read more non-fiction so I was bound to get to this book sooner or later.  

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic runner who became an airman during World War II.  On a May afternoon in 1943, Louis’ bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared.  Louis and two other crew members survive the crash and subsequently drift nearly 2,000 miles over the course of 47 days before being pulled out of the water.  Forty-seven days on a life raft with no food or water is not the worst thing that actually happens to Louis.  The worst thing is the Japanese prisoner-of-war camps he is held in until the end of the war in August 1945. 

Some of the reasons I don’t like to read non-fiction are that I usually find it dry, slow moving and it fails to hold my interest.  Unbroken succeeded in proving me wrong on all accounts.  Hillenbrand’s book had the potential to get mired down in details but she masterfully moves the story forward without compromising the story.  Unbroken begins, well, at the beginning.  The reader meets Louis as a fearless, incorrigible toddler and follows him as he becomes a defiant teenager who fights, steals and is generally not very likeable.  What saves Louis is his older brother’s determination to get Louis into running.   Running leads Louis to the 1936 Olympics in Germany where he reportedly catches the eye of Hitler and gets away with some youthful antics that could have gotten him into a lot of trouble.  Five years later, with future Olympics put on hold due to the war in Europe, Louis has earned a commission as a second lieutenant and enlists in the United States Air Force. 

When I started this book and read about Louis as a teenager I really wondered why Hillenbrand included so much about Louis’ upbringing.  As the story progresses it became abundantly clear that Louis was a survivor.  The fighting, stealing and running he engaged in as a youth probably helped him to survive the absolute hell he had to endure as a POW. 

Unbroken also opened my eyes about an aspect of World War II history that I didn’t know much about.   I think that so much of WWII history is about Germany and the genocide of the Jews, that the horrors going on in Japan are overlooked.  I had no idea just how horrible the Japanese POW camps were and how atrociously the prisoners were treated.  I realize a prisoner camp isn’t a luxury summer camp, but these men were physically, emotionally, and mentally abused while being starved to death.  That any of them survived is a testament the strength of the human spirit.   After finishing Unbroken I started reading up on WWII history, specifically the war fought against the Japanese. 

If you are in a book club and haven’t discussed Unbroken, I highly recommend this book.  At just under 400 pages it really packs a punch.  The Let’s Talk Books group discussion covered many topics that came up, from Louis and his life to the decision to drop the atomic bombs.  With the summary I gave above it is pretty clear what is considered survival and resilience.  To find out what the redemption part is all about you will just have to read the book.  Louis Zamperini will turn 96 on January 26, yes, he is still alive.  After reading about his experiences during World War II the fact that he is still alive makes him even more remarkable.  Keep an eye out for a movie based on Unbroken, it is in development and I truly hope Hollywood can do the story justice. 

~Amy, Adult Services

P.S. The next Let's Talk Books meeting is on March 12 at 7 P.M. in the 3rd floor Aigler Auditorium.  We will be discussing The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.  

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