Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption
Laura Hillenbrand, 2010
On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood.
Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.
Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.
In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. (From the publisher.)
• Where—Fairfax, Virginia, USA
• Education—B.A., Kenyon College
• Awards—William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award;
National Book Critics Circle Award Nomination, 2002
• Currently—lives in Washington, D.C.
Laura Hillenbrand is an American author of books and magazine articles. Born in Fairfax, Virginia, Hillenbrand spent much of her childhood riding bareback "screaming over the hills" of her father's Sharpsburg, Maryland, farm. A favorite of hers was Come On Seabiscuit, a 1963 kiddie book. "I read it to death, my little paperback copy," she says.
She studied at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but was forced to leave before graduation when she contracted Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. She has struggled with the condition ever since, remaining largely confined to her home. On the irony of writing about physical paragons while being so incapaciated herself, she says, "I'm looking for a way out of here. I can't have it physically, so I'm going to have it intellectually. It was a beautiful thing to ride Seabiscuit in my imagination. And it's just fantastic to be there alongside Louie Zamperini [hero of Unbroken] as he's breaking the NCAA mile record. People at these vigorous moments in their lives—it's my way of living vicariously.
She now lives in Washington, D.C, with her husband, Borden Flanagan, a professor of Government at American University. They were college sweethearts and married in 2008.
Hillenbrand's first book was the acclaimed Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), a non-fiction account of the career of the great racehorse Seabiscuit, for which she won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year in 2001. She says she was compelled to tell the story because she "found fascinating people living a story that was improbable, breathtaking and ultimately more satisfying than any story [she'd] ever come across."She first told the story through an essay she sold to American Heritage magazine, and the feedback was positive, so she decided to procede with a full novel. Upon the book's release, she recieved rave reviews for her storytelling and research. It was made into the Academy Award nominated film Seabiscuit (2003).
Hillenbrand's second book is Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (2010), a biography of World War II hero Louis Zamperini (1917-).
Her essays have appeared in The New Yorker, Equus magazine, American Heritage, Blood-Horse, Thoroughbred Times, Backstretch, Turf and Sport Digest, and many other publications. Her 1998 American Heritage article on the horse Seabiscuit won the Eclipse Award for Magazine Writing.
Hillenbrand is a co-founder of Operation Iraqi Children. (From Wikipedia.)
Just as she demonstrated in Seabiscuit, Ms. Hillenbrand is a muscular, dynamic storyteller…Her command of the action-adventure idiom is more than enough to hold interest. But she happens also to have located a tale full of unforgettable characters, multi-hanky moments and wild turns. And if some of it sounds too much like pulp fiction to be true, Ms. Hillenbrand has also done a bang-up research job.... [Unbroken] manages to be as exultant as Seabiscuit as it tells a much more harrowing, less heart-warming story.
Janet Maslin - New York Times
Unbroken is wonderful twice over, for the tale it tells and for the way it’s told. A better book than Seabiscuit, it manages maximum velocity with no loss of subtlety. [Hillenbrand has] a jeweler’s eye for a detail that makes a story live.
A warning: after cracking open Unbroken you may find yourself dog tired the next day, having spent most of the night fending off sleep with coffee refills, eager to find out whether the story of Louis Zamperini, Olympic runner turned WWII POW, ends in redemption or despair..In Hillenbrand’s [hands], it’s nothing less than a marvel—a book worth losing sleep over.
Will you be able to put [Unbroken] down once you poke your nose into it? You will not.... No one delivers a play-by-play better than Laura Hillenbrand.... No other author of narrative nonfiction chooses her subjects with greater discrimination or renders them with more discipline and commitment. If storytelling were an Olympic event, she’d medal for sure.
Laura Miller - Salon
(Starred review.) From the 1936 Olympics to WWII Japan's most brutal POW camps, Hillenbrand's heart-wrenching new book is thousands of miles and a world away from the racing circuit of her bestselling Seabiscuit. But it's just as much a page-turner, and its hero, Louie Zamperini, is just as loveable.... In May 1943 his B-24 crashed into the Pacific. After a record-breaking 47 days adrift on a shark-encircled life raft with his pal and pilot, Russell Allen "Phil" Phillips, they were captured by the Japanese. In the "theater of cruelty" that was the Japanese POW camp network, Louie landed in the cruelest theaters of all: Omori and Naoetsu, under the control of Corp. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a pathologically brutal sadist (called the Bird by camp inmates) who never killed his victims outright—his pleasure came from their slow, unending torment.... And Louie, with his defiant and unbreakable spirit, was Watanabe's victim of choice. By war's end, Louie was near death. When Naoetsu was liberated in mid-August 1945, a depleted Louie's only thought was "I'm free!"... But as Hillenbrand shows, Louie was not yet free. [he was] haunted in his dreams, drinking to forget, and obsessed with vengeance. Hillenbrand...writes movingly of the thousands of postwar Pacific PTSD sufferers [who had] no help for their as yet unrecognized illness.... The book's final section is the story of how...Louie found his path. It is impossible to condense the rich, granular detail of Hillenbrand's narrative of the atrocities committed...against American POWs in Japan, and the courage of Louie and his fellow POWs.... Hillenbrand's triumph is that in telling Louie's story (he's now in his 90s), she tells the stories of thousands whose suffering has been mostly forgotten. She restores to our collective memory this tale of heroism, cruelty, life, death, joy, suffering, remorselessness, and redemption. —Sarah F. Gold
The author of Seabiscuit now brings us a biography of World War II prisoner of war survivor Louis Zamperini (b. 1917). A track athlete at the 1936 Munich Olympics, Zamperini became a B-24 crewman in the U.S. Army Air Force. When his plane went down in the Pacific in 1943, he spent 47 days in a life raft, then was picked up by a Japanese ship and survived starvation and torture in labor camps. Eventually repatriated, he had a spiritual rebirth and returned to Japan to promote forgiveness and healing. Because of the author's popularity, libraries will want this book both for general readers who like a good story and for World War II history buffs; however, it's not essential reading for those who read Zamperini's autobiography, Devil at My Heels, with David Rensin, in its 2003 edition.
[Hillenbrand’s] skills are as polished as ever, and like its predecessor, this book has an impossible-to-put-down quality that one commonly associates with good thrillers.
[Hillenbrand] returns with another dynamic, well-researched story of guts overcoming odds...Alternately stomach-wrenching, anger-arousing and spirit-lifting—and always gripping.
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:
Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Unbroken:
1. Readers and critics alike have described Unbroken as gripping, almost impossible to put down. Was that your experience as well? How do you account for the page-turning quality given the grim subject material? Also, would your reading experience have been different if you didn't know that Zamperini survived? (Or didn't you know the outcome?)
2. Laura Hillenbrand gives us a moving story, one that brings to life the suffering and courage of not just one man but thousands, whose stories are untold. What is it about Hillenbrand's writing that saves her book from becoming mired in bathos and melodrama?
3. What do you admire most about Zamperini? What enables him to survive the plane crash and POW ordeal? Does he possess special strengths—personal or physical? Did his training in track, for instance, make a difference in his resilience?
4. How do the POW captives help one another survive? How are they able to communicate with one another? What devices do Zamperini and others use not only to survive but to maintain sanity?
5. What do you find most horrifying about Zamperini's captivity?
6. Does this book make you wonder at mankind's capacity for cruelty? What accounts for it—especially on the part of the Japanese, a highly cultured and civilized society? (The same question, of course, has been applied to the Nazis.)
7. Hillenbrand devotes time to the difficulty of veterans' re-entering life after the war. She says, "there was no one right way to peace; each man had to find his own path." What is Zamperini's path? How does his conversion under Billy Graham help him? What role does his wife, Cynthia, play?
8. Follow-up to Question 7: Why, after World War II, did the medical profession fail to acknowledge Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? After all, this was the mid-20th century, and psychiatry was a fairly established discipline. Plus, the horrors of World War I were only one generation behind. What took so long?
9. Unbroken is a classic inspirational story, but it lies somewhat on the surface, offering little in the way of psychological depth. Do you wish there were more instrospection in Zamperini's account? Or do you feel this story is rich enough as it is?
(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)
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