Monday, July 11, 2011

Uberman is Born Again

Laura Hillenbrand’s second book, follow up to her racehorse blockbuster Seabiscuit, is another runaway bestseller, the rather blandly titled Unbroken. It was published last November by Random House and is these days in the hands of every third person stretched out in a vacation lounge chair. Its popularity is nothing less than it deserves, and my guess is that anyone who picks it up and reads the first couple of pages is going to be hopelessly hooked. The hook came late to me, only last week when I encountered a stack of copies on a table in the bookstore and decided the time was right. Good thing it wasn’t a busy time because I was sidetracked for three days straight by Ms Hillenbrand, Louie Zamperini and the Pacific War.

The book’s opening is a perfect snare—a brief glimpse of the forty-two days Zamperini spent adrift on a life raft in the Pacific. Unbroken is the survival story of Air Force bombardier and Olympic track star Louis Zamperini, whose B-24 bomber crashed in the Pacific, and who spent six weeks on a life raft and then two years as a prisoner of war in Japan. The story’s tension is unrelenting in Zamperini’s fight to live through the horrors and extreme conditions that war places him in. In this sense Unbroken lives up to its hype, with drama as high pitched as pulp fiction, but because of the author’s fine research it all carries the certainty of fact.

The drama is compelling, but it is the fine historical detail backing up the drama that makes the book something more than another hero biography. Hillenbrand sets her scenes inside a time and place that are shaped by social conditioning, mechanical facts, unfamiliar statistics and the psychology of an enemy’s worldview. Before reading the book I had not known that America in the 1930s was a society ‘…infatuated with the pseudoscience of eugenics and its promise of strengthening the human race by culling the “unfit” from the genetic pool.’ The list of those considered unfit included the feebleminded, insane, criminal, women who had sex out of wedlock, orphans, the disabled, epileptics, masturbators, the blind and deaf… The list goes on. Hillenbrand puts a brief focus on this social movement because of its relevance to young Louie Zamperini, who was constantly in trouble and growing up in California, a state that ultimately sterilized almost twenty thousand people on the basis of eugenics.

In similar fashion the author brings to life little known facts about American war planes, especially the B-24 bombers that Zamperini served in. Who besides war buffs knew that the B-24 carried the nickname the “Flying Coffin” and that many more American flyers died in malfunctioning planes than did from being shot down? The start of Zamperini’s ordeal is mechanical failure of the plane he is in, searching for another B-24 that disappeared over the Pacific. These sections of Unbroken that illustrate the shadowy facts of countries at war are what give the book its sinew, and are especially informative in the prisoner of war chapters. The ethic behind the high death rate of Allies in Japanese prison camps and the cruelty of the Japanese guards is not left to guesswork; the writer has done her research well.

At the center of each of the book’s 398 pages is Louis Zamperini, and though he is definitely something of an uberman, he never loses humanity in Hillenbrand’s portrait, and in fact that humanity is probably his strongest trait. We see a man who never sinks to a passive stance in any of the trying situations he is thrust into time and again. Still, there are portions of the book that give the impression of glossing over the man’s psychological depth. It is almost as if his powers of survival were ordinary and without depth of character. Hillenbrand perhaps oversimplifies by calling it a rebellious nature.

There is a similar shallowness to the post war nightmares and troubles Zamperini faced. Yes, he drank to excess, suffered rages and nightmares, but the writer seemed to be reading from a list of post-prisoner symptoms that carried none of Zamperini’s life blood. In the last section of the book he finally climbs out the darkness via a pat encounter with Billy Graham, where for reasons that are hard to grasp, Louis Zamperini is suddenly ‘born again’ and becomes a sudden evangelist. He and the writer connect this conversion to a one-line panic promise to God during one the many life raft near death experiences several years earlier.

There are a few odd tones in Unbroken, but for all of that Louie Zamperini did turn his life around, save his marriage, work for the good of others and stay fit enough to carry the Olympic torch in several Olympic ceremonies. At ninety-three he continues to live a robust life in his Hollywood Hills home.


  1. Yes, absolutely deserves to be seen being read on the beaches of the world. And I agree it is the historical facts that lend so much interest to the book--and is exactly what added to SEABISCUIT being such an outstanding read. No doubt UNBROKEN is also in film development. Not all books need great literary language; sometimes mere plot and interesting details drive home a great read.

  2. This is a definite read for me. Thanks for a wonderful review.

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About Me

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America