Wednesday, September 26, 2012

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

 Lauren Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption (Random House, 2010) tells a remarkable story about the life and ordeals of Louis Zamperini before during and after the Second World War. What I suspect, however, is that there were many other stories from that time equally remarkable. What makes his story unusual is that he was willing to tell it. He was and is at an age well past 90 an outspoken and voluble person who loves to talk, who loves attention, and doesn't have any hesitation to share his traumatic and difficult experiences of World War II.

Zamperini certainly had an unusual life. He was the son of an Italian immigrant family that settled in California in the early 1900s. His family had a difficult life. His parents struggle to make ends meet, to give a life to their young children. Hillenbrand gives a wonderful account of Louis’s childhood days, his juvenile delinquency, his love of playing pranks, and the many worries he gave to everyone around him, who saw little hope for his future. Louis's discovery that he could run, and run fast, turned his life around.  He became a high school track star, and then a track star at UCLA, and won the acclaim of everyone in his hometown. He ran in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and was on course to set new world records in the 1940 Olympics.  World War II intervened.

Following the end of the war, after surviving forty-days on a raft after his plane crashes and three years of terrible and torturous conditions in prison camp, Louis returned home and eventually develops battle fatigue, known today as posttraumatic stress syndrome. About the time he is developing a severe case of alcoholism, he meets a woman he decides to marry. They have a baby, he finds it difficult to earn money, tries various schemes and investments, and people take advantage of him. His marriage and his life verge on collapse, until his wife convinces him to go to a revival meeting held by Billy Graham. Louie sees the light, the marriage is saved, he stops drinking, recovers from battle fatigue. This in fact is the end of his story. Hillenbrand skips 60 years into the future, and Louie is still alive and very much the man he was before, full of energy and optimism and ready to tell his story. This was not a satisfactory ending to me. After all Louis had been through, he walks into a prayer meeting, and he sees the light. It's just a little bit harebrained. 

Unbroken lacked the depth and sweep of Hillenbrand's first book Seabiscuit. The Depression was the center of that book, which focused on four very different individuals attempting to make their way through a difficult American decade. There were all sorts of ways one could find to be interested in Seabiscuit--the Depression, power of the media in attracting the attention of the public, pursuit of the American dream, horse racing, personal quests for redemption, and others. Seabiscuit had something to say about the nation at a particular time in its history. Louis's story doesn’t really make such a statement, despite its considerable attention to the suffering of American prisoners of war in a Japanese internment camp.   It tells a good story, offers plentiful details, makes clear that Louis endured astounding difficulties, both on a raft in the Pacific and as a prisoner of war and as a veteran trying to return to domestic life in the United States.  But it's shallow. It's an amazing story of survival, yes. But it's difficult to see what makes Louis any different from millions of other young American GIs who suffered through the war. 


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