What people face, fight, and overcome without the help of magic wands, superheroes, lightsabers, time machines, flying brooms, or immortal boyfriends will always be more intriguing to me than what the limitless imagination can conjure up.
This has never been more true for me than when I read the book “Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” by Laura Hillenbrand.
The words “amazing, incredible, unbelievable” and every synonym of these words doesn’t begin to describe this true story.
I am already a huge fan of Laura Hillenbrand because the ability to write biography like a suspense novel is true brilliance. Did anyone know or care about a Depression-era racehorse named “Seabiscuit” before she brought his story to life? What I love about Laura’s writing is her ability to tell the main character’s story while seamlessly weaving in the stories of supporting characters, events, etc. that contribute to understanding the main character’s tale without overtaking it.
For instance, the story of Seabiscuit would be nothing more than thoroughbred bloodlines, race reports and statistics without knowing the stories of Charles Howard, Tom Smith, Red Pollard, War Admiral, or Prohibition-era Tijuana.
“Unbroken” is the story of Olympic runner and World Ward II Veteran, Louis Zamperini, but like Seabiscuit, his story is a complex tangle of many people, places and events which Hillenbrand brings vividly to life. From unruly boyhood to college track star, from Olympic hopeful to prisoner of war, Louie’s journey is completely captivating.
“As the men sat together, exhausted and in shock, a shark lunged up over the wall of the raft, mouth open, trying to drag a man into the ocean. Someone grabbed an oar and hit the shark, and it slid off. Then another shark jumped on and, after it, another. The men gripped the oars and wheeled about, frantically swinging at the sharks. As they turned and swung and the sharks flopped up, air was forced out of the bullet holes, and the raft sank deeper. If the men didn’t get air into the raft immediately, the sharks would take them. The men hooked [an air pump] to one of the two valves and took turns pumping as hard as they could. Air flowed into the chamber and seeped out through the bullet holes, but the men found that if they pumped very quickly, just enough air passed through the raft to lift it up in the water and keep it mostly inflated. The sharks kept coming, and the men kept beating them away. As Phil and Mac pumped and struck at the sharks, Louie groped for patching material. As Louie worked [patching the raft]. . . the sharks kept snapping at him. Over and over again, they lunged at Louis from behind, where he couldn’t see them. Mac and Phil smacked them away. Hour after hour, the men worked, rotating duties, clumsy with fatigue. All three men were indispensable. Had there been only two, they couldn’t have pumped, patched, and repelled the sharks.”
Tell me you don’t want to know what happens to Loius, Phil and Mac abandoned out in the middle of the Pacific ocean on a leaky liferaft with sharks jumping at them on every side.
And, believe me, sharks are not even close to the worst monsters Louis faces.
Reading about the human cruelty and suffering both inflicted and endured in Pacific war prison camps was shocking and humbling. And yet, through the torture and suffering emerged simple acts of humanity, kindness and patriotism that promoted astonishing survival.
You won’t be disappointed.
You’ll wish Louie was your grandpa so you could sit at his knee and hear him tell his mesmerizing tale in person.
But the way Laura tells it, you almost feel like you are.