I read this book in two days flat and I know that, had I had the time, I would have read it in one sitting. This is a book that grips you, draws you in and leaves you feeling a slightly better person for having read it.
The story is that of Louie Zamperini - a track and field star of the 1930's, who participated in the Berlin olympics, was part of the US air force in WWII, was shot down over the ocean, was adrift in the Pacific for over a month, was held as a POW by the Japanese forces and finally made it back to his life and has had the courage to live it to its fullest.
Hillenbrand is a marvellous author. I was never tempted to read Seabiscuit and this was my first introduction to her work. She is one of a few authors who can write a non fiction story in the most gripping and vivid way imaginable. Instead of being flowery or overly embellished her prose relies squarely on research and on witness accounts and yet manages to never be dull. The swiftly moving story takes the reader from Zamperini's early beginnings, his swift rise to track star, the Berlin olympics and then to the World War. This is where the story really blooms. Hillenbrand settles in for the long haul here and we get to see the air force and the B24 bombers through the words of the men who actually flew them. The sequences where Zamperini and his friend Phil are adrift at sea are vivid and strangely beautifully described. The horrors that await them at the Japanese prison camps are not glossed over but neither does Hillenbrand wallow in the gore and violence as some authors may be tempted to do. There is always a strong sense of the respect the author holds for the men whose story she is being allowed to tell.
History has perhaps focused its eye too exclusively on the war in Europe to the extent where the situation in the Pacific and the plight of POW's there has not recieved the attention and the respect it deserves. Hillenbrand's book and detailed research certainly makes a strong attempt to change that.
Solidly based on statistics and army reports from both sides of the war, Hillenbrands book paints a clear picture of the hellish conditions that the POW's endured and the utter madness of the war that was being waged in the Pacific. This is a hard story to read but one that is well worth it. The falling apart of Louie's life and his slow path to regaining his life and sense of purpose is a story that is truly inspiring. This book will find a permanent place of honor on my bookshelf.
on October 2, 2010
Louis Zamperini? Who is he? Laura Hillenbrand's near 500-page reply will answer the question not only once, but for all. He is the California boy who was a kleptomaniac. He is the running prodigy who competed at Hitler's Berlin Olympics, shook hands with the Fuhrer, and was almost shot by Nazi guards for stealing a Nazi souvenir. He is the American serviceman who entered the Pacific theater, crashed into the sea, and spent a harrowing forty-odd days floating on a disintegrating raft circled by aggressive sharks, scorched by a relentless sun, and gnawed to the bone by an inescapable hunger.
Who is Louis Zamperini? He is a man who overcame all THAT only to be "rescued" by the wrong side -- the Japanese. He is the man who went from being a prisoner of starvation and sharks that actually leaped up and tried to snatch him out of the foundering raft to being a prisoner of Japanese guards who were every bit as predatory as the great white of the seas. He is the man who was beaten every day by a particular Japanese corporal named Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "the Bird." He is, in short, the Unbroken One -- the man who kept getting up, coming back, rebounding, and holding on to the tenuous thread that connected him with life and hope, past any duration that any of us could possibly imagine. And, as YOU can imagine, his story is compelling. In fact, in the capable hands of Laura Hillenbrand, author of SEABISCUIT, it reads like a thriller, a page-turner, a fictional product of a keenly talented mind -- proving once again that truth can trump fiction when it comes to stories and mankind's love of hearing them.
When you reach the end of this man's incredible journey, you will be awed by the scope of Hillenbrand's writing. It is clear that she did a vast amount of research -- reading letters, telegrams, newspaper clippings, radio transcripts, etc., AND interviewing not only Zamperini himself, but his family members, friends, surviving fellow servicemen, and even Japanese captors. Woven in her biography are many statistics and facts from the history of World War II as well. You will learn about the science of survival -- why certain men live and certain men die -- and about the strengths and weaknesses of America's planes that carried servicemen over the vast distances of the Pacific Ocean. You will learn about the war strategy, the Japanese culture and its effects on treatment of POWs as well as on conducting (and refusing to surrender in) a war to the bitter end. And, sadly, you will learn about the aftermath of war in Japan.
It's all here, bigger than life, packed into the small frame of one man from Torrance, California -- a man that could, and did, live to tell about a page in history we hope never to repeat. Both a personal tale of redemption and resilience, UNBROKEN is destined to become a classic in the category of narrative nonfiction. Ordinarily I'm a fiction guy, but I was spellbound from the start. Honest. Give it a try. It's big, but reads small. I think, when you reach the end, you, too, will sing its (and Louie's) praises (at 93, Zamperini is still alive and still "Unbroken"!).
This is the long (500 pages) extremely detailed, meticulously researched and extremely moving story of a Hero. And yes, the caps on "hero" was intentional.
In the first half of the book we get a detailed biography of Louis Zamperini- bad boy, then track and field star and Olympic contender. Possibly too detailed here, I admit. We then segue into WWI and Lt Zamperini's Air Corps career as a B-24 bombardier. Great stuff here, goes into fascinating detail about the B24 Liberator and the men who flew them in the Pacific. The last portion here is a harrowing tale of survival in the open seas, one of the best I have read.
Then, Louie Zamperini gets captured by the Japanese. Folks, watching Bridge on the River Kwai will not prepare you for the brutality and inhumanity of the horrors Laura Hillenbrand brings to life here. Now, this is a gripping adventure story, well told, one that is hard to put down. But I had to put this book down in a couple places here, the story was that brutally true.
A tale of unbelievable endurance, hardship and heroism. A real page turner, extremely well written and readable.
No one can accuse Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, of ever doing a half-effort job of research when she writes narrative nonfiction. Spending seven years on this effort, the Author has produced one of the most detailed stories of an American POW being held by the Japanese during World War II that I have ever read. With the many interviews with the subject during her research, along with interviews of family members, other POW's and their families, reading over unpublished memoirs, personal letters, and military documents, it would have been easy for this book to have become a long drawn-out and sterile narrative that would read like a text book. Instead we're treated to a captivating and at times heart-wrenching story that takes a group of unknowns and present them in a way that you truly come to know them.
The subject of the book is Louis Zamperini, whose life would have been an interesting read even before the events during WWII. A relatively trouble child who stole everything in sight, he grows up to become one of the greatest track stars of his time, shattering the national high school record in the mile and becoming one of the youngest members of the U.S. Olympic team in 1936. Many felt that Zamperini would become the first person to break the four minute mile. With the onset of the war, he was drafted into the Army Air Force and became a bombardier assigned to the semi-unreliable B-24. After surviving a number of bombing missions against Japanese targets his plane goes down in the middle of the ocean while searching for another downed plane. What follows is a story of survival by sheer will, first being adrift at sea for 46 days and then spending over two brutal years as a POW in Japan.
Hillenbrand takes us step-by-step through the events, introducing us to other Allied prisoners as well as a number of the Japanese guards and personnel. Her descriptions of the brutality Louie, as well as other prisoners, went through are very detailed and heart-wrenching. His daily beatings from a guard known as "The Bird" would have been enough to break anyone but Zamperini endured each one. One thing I found interesting is not only did she name names of the guards that tortured the prisoners mercilessly she also did not shy away from pointing out the Japanese personnel who did their best to shield the prisoners even at the risk of their own safety. Then after the war the Author takes us through the post-traumatic years as Zamperini's life spirals downward, and his eventual rebirth as he learns forgiveness and peace.
I would highly recommend this to those looking for an inspiring story of, as the sub-title of the book says, "Survival, Resilience, and Redemption." Just be aware, a large portion of the story will focus on the brutality and suffering inflicted on the POW's by the Japanese war machine. It can be at times a very disturbing and difficult narrative to read, one that can bring tears to your eyes. It is both one of the best books of the WWII POW experience I've read, and one of the most troubling.
In "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption," author Laura Hillenbrand (of Seabiscuit: An American Legend tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a bad boy turned track and field star, who participated in the 1936 Berlin Olympic and even met Hitler. Narrowly escaping arrest for attempting to piler a Nazi flag, Zamperini returned home, washed out as a pilot and eventually ended up in the Army Air Corps as a B-24 bombardier.
Then, in May 1943, his plane goes down. He and one of his crewmates endure over 47 days before they find land, but, unfortunately, they land in enemy terrain, and are sent to a POW camp, where the story gets even more harrowing and brutal. The story of Zamperini's ordeal, survival and eventual return home, with its own attendant struggles, is one of the most gripping tales of heroism and sheer toughness, mental and physical, that I have ever read.
I must admit, I was a bit worried that Ms. Hillenbrand, after having written the excellent Seabiscuit, would suffer a "sophomore slump." My worries were completely unfounded. Ms. Hillenbrand has the rare gift for setting atmosphere, including vast amounts of tightly-integrated background information, yet her narrative never drags or slows. Every detail was meticulously researched - I can only imagine how much work that took - and she did an incredible effort of setting the stage. I also appreciated the even-handedness of her approach, particularly when singling out the kind and humane guards in the Japanese POW camp, who took tremendous risks. Another standout section of the book, although brief, was the difficulty soldiers had in returning back to "normal life" after the war.
This is one of the best books, historical or not, that I have ever read, and would make an outstanding movie as well. Five-plus stars.
on November 5, 2010
I remember quite clearly when reading Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscuit" about the famous racehorse that this might be a once-in-a-lifetime book for the author, that she would probably never find so compelling a story to focus upon. Hillenbrand herself says much the same thing in the afterword to her new "Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption" (due to be released to the public in the next couple weeks) -- but then she learned about Louie Zamperini. Zamperini, as the son of immigrant Italians in California in the 1930s, seemed a sure candidate for everybody's "Most Likely to Go to Reform School" list. Then, his older brother convinced him to try out for the high school track team, and a great natural gift for running was discovered. In short order, his academic and disciplinary record reversed itself, and soon Zamperini was a student at USC and one of the brightest stars of the American track scene, often touted as being the man most likely to break the fabled four minute barrier in running the mile. He was on the US team at the 1936 (Berlin) Olympics where he did respectably, although it was believed that with a little more maturity his real opportunity to win gold would come at the 1940 (Tokyo) Olympics. Then, World War II started.
Louis Zamperini found himself a B24 bombadier in the Pacific, where long distance over-water flying in aircraft of dubious mechanical reliability probably killed more air crew than combat. In 1943 Zamperini's plane disappeared while on a search-and-rescue mission, and Zamperini and the rest of the crew were presumed killed. Instead, he and the pilot survived 47 days in a life raft before being found and "rescued" by the Japanese, landing Zamperini in a succession of POW camps for the next two years. It was a horrid, brutal experience, and it makes for intensely distressing reading. Zamperini was singled out by one particular chief guard, perhaps because of his sports fame, perhaps because of his unbowed attitude, for unrelenting, sadistic attention. Yet, despite the beatings and torture and almost nonexistent food and terrible living conditions Zamperini survived.
Restored to the States after the end of the War, Zamperini married but quickly descended into a desperate spiral of alcohol and anger that threatened his marriage and his life. But, improbably enough, when he was dragged reluctantly to a Billy Graham camp meeting by his estranged wife, Zamperini found it within himself to let go of his wholly understandable anger and thirst for revenge, and literally reformed himself overnight, becoming an inspirational speaker and advocate for troubled youths. As of this writing, he is still hale and hearty, an indomitable optimist.
Hillenbrand has once again found herself a perfect subject (Zamperini told her that it would be easier to write about him than Seabiscuit because he, at least, could talk), and again has demonstrated her skill in constructing a highly compelling story, vividly drawing upon the memories of a large cast of friends and family and former enemies. "Unbroken" is a marvelous book. The account of Zamperini's POW years is tough stuff, to be sure, but Hillenbrand's focus on an extraordinary character is unwavering.
There are thousands of books written about World War Two. Some tell the story of battles; some follow the history of the whole war, or this or that theater. Some focus on the plight of the Prisoners of War. Some are memoirs, or biographies.
Unbroken must join the bibliography of the Pacific War as one of the best personal narratives written. Laura Hillenbrand, famous for her story of Seabiscuit, picks up the story of one young man, Louie Zamperini, troublemaker, runner, bombardier, and runs with it. He was lost in the crash at sea of his B24 Green Hornet. Lost at sea, he drifted for weeks in a life raft with two of his crewmates. They broke all records for survival in such a craft. Two of them made it, through shark infested waters, hunger and thirst to land. That's where their ordeal began.
Now, a survival against nature story turns into something more terrible and ominous. Zamperini must contend and deal with the blackest shadows of human nature while a POW in wartime Japan. Against all odds he survives, after being officially declared dead and returns to a grateful nation.
He and his fellow POWs suffer the after effects of their ordeals for years after the war and again, Zamperini sinks into his own private hell. Then, when in deepest despair, he meets a young Billy Graham and his life turns around once more. He finds finally redemption and returns to Japan not as a messenger of hate but as a herald of hope and forgiveness.
I loved this book.
Laura Hillenbrand's new book, "Unbroken", is one of the most incredible books I've read in recent years. It is the true story of Louie Zamperini. Zamperini, an Olympic 5000 meter runner for the US(Berlin; 1936) survives the plane crash of his bomber in the Pacific in May of 1943. The book recounts in vivid detail all that occurs over the next 2 and 1/2 years. Mr. Zamperini's story is absolutely incredible. This ranks with the best personal accounts of WWII ever written. This book is riveting!! Ms Hillenbrand's narrative style compels you to continue turning pages long after her accounts of the horrors Zamperini has endured have left you exhausted. This book is a MUST READ!! It is destined to be perched at the top of the bestseller lists for months to come.
This is likely to be the book of the year for several reasons. It is beautifully written and beautifully structured. It has a compelling and inspirational subject. It is filled to the brim with fascinating facts (Which parts of a shark are edible? What was the mortality rate in Japanese prison camps versus that in Italian/German ones? What is it like to fly a B-24?). It is the product of exhaustive research. It combines the advantages and attractiveness of biography with the strengths and strategies of suspense fiction.
By now, most will be familiar with the subject. In Seabiscuit Laura Hillenbrand studied a California racer. She does the same in Unbroken, with the distinct advantage that (as her subject pointed out to her) he can actually talk and tell her what happened. Her subject, Louie Zamperini, was a difficult child who matured into an Olympic runner, racing in Berlin in 1936. He joined the Army Air Force in WWII, serving as a bombardier. His hideously-unreliable B-24 plummeted into the Pacific and he and two fellow fliers floated in an open raft toward the Marshall Islands, fighting heat, thirst, starvation, sharks and strafings from a Japanese plane along the way.
Interned in several Japanese prison camps he was treated mercilessly and criminally. Saved by the American forces in the Pacific, the relentless bombing of Japan by B-29's and, quintessentially, by the flight of the Enola Gay, he was freed and returned home. Enslaved by persistent memories and alcohol, his marriage on the edge, he was saved by none other than Billy Graham. He remains alive today at 93, still feisty and active.
This is the perfect Christmas gift for anyone, but particularly for those who remember the war, those who experienced it directly and those who need to be educated concerning it. Be warned, however. Once they start reading the book they will be absent from the rest of the family's holiday activities until they complete it.
I highly recommend it and tip my hat to the author for her personal courage and tenacity in writing a great book.
on November 23, 2010
Like a lot of readers, I was drawn to this book by the exceptional professional reviews. However, I have to admit that when I started the book I was completely disappointed. The beginning of the story was sloooooooow and repetitive, and not particularly well-written. However, after getting through the early chapters, the book picked up steam in a hurry. Even still, it wasn't quite the book I expected. This was a war story, which does not by any stretch take away from the book. Though it wasn't what I had expected, it was fantastic after the early chapters.
As others have summarized, the book follows the story of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner from Los Angeles. The first chapters of the book cover his somewhat troubled youth and his rise to brilliance as a track star. This background is essential to understanding how Mr. Zamperini survived his POW ordeal, but got a bit repetitive after awhile.
The bulk of the book is the story of Mr. Zamperini's time with the Army Air Corps and in Japanese POW camps, and this is where the book really took flight. Building on her extensive research, Hillenbrand paints a very vivid and disturbingly realistic picture of the Pacific Theater in WWII. The travails of the POWs in the Japanese camps are very painful to read about, and left me with an even greater admiration for anyone who managed to survive there for even a single day. Thanks to the Nazis, the atrocities committed by the Japanese tend to be a footnote in the history of WWII, but this book brings them to the forefront. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear how Mr. Zamperini's early life experiences may have actually prepared him to survive these camps.
Overall, I definitely recommend this book with the caution that it's not a lighthearted story of overcoming the odds. It's actually more of a detailed historical work of Pacific POW camps that may very well affect you for the rest of your life. Stick with it.