I am one of the few people that LOVES books and movies about runners, but who can’t personally run more than 200 feet (and that’s being generous) without my lungs shriveling up and imploding (inspiring, I know…but if you are looking to me for inspiration, I feel sorry for you. That’s what the books about running are there for! So stop reading this and go pick up Born to Run instead. Wait – finish reading this review first and then go do it. Unless you are morbidly obese. Then stop reading immediately and go get inspired – with permission from your health care professional of course). I am also one of what I imagine is a much larger group of people endlessly fascinated with literary renditions of World War II – in particular the Holocaust. And, to top it all off, I will choose a good “I’m stuck on a raft in the middle of the ocean with practically no hope of survival” book any day (Life of Pi, anyone?). So imagine my delight when I heard about Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit) that combines all three things! That’s right – running, WWII, and rafts! It doesn’t get any better than that. Unless of course you are the person longing to run while trapped on a rapidly deflating raft in the middle of the ocean in Japanese waters. And the raft is in danger of being eaten by 10 foot long sharks. And you have no food. And perhaps only a tablespoon of water. Then I’m pretty sure life could be better.
If the scenario sounds too awful to be true, it isn’t. In fact, Louie Zamperini is the name of the man who found himself on that ill-fated raft, and is consequently the man who inspired Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. But I think I’m jumping ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning. Zamperini was a rebellious youth who turned to running as a constructive release for his pent up energy. He was tremendously talented, and set to break the four minute mile. His incredible gift took him as far as the Berlin Olympics. Then, in the midst of training for his second Olympics, he was drafted by the Air Force during World War II. In the Air Force, Louis managed to avert tragedy after tragedy until one day his bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean, killing all but two of his crewmates. And so he found himself and two of his crew drifting hopelessly day after day, presumably west, toward Japanese territory.
I typically don’t like books that get into the fighting aspects of the War , and reading about all the various battles doesn’t really interest me as much as the stories about people struggling to maintain their humanity and dignity in the face of unbearable hardships. This is why I tend to pick up books about the Holocaust rather than about the War itself. I was initially worried that since Hillenbrand’s book is a non-fiction account of Louie’s time in the Air Force, the story would waver on the line between dull and mildly interesting. However, I was pleasantly surprised. This book NEVER felt like non-fiction, and by that I mean it lacked that matter-of-fact/removed quality that is unfortunately quite common among books of its kind. Plus, it opened up a completely different side of the WWII to me from the one I routinely read about. For so many years I’ve been caught up in the plentitude of heartbreaking injustices committed by the Nazis against the Jewish, and never gave much thought to the equally appalling atrocities committed against American prisoners of war by their captors. The fact that Louie Zamperini is still alive (at 95) to tell the world his story baffles me. And not only is he alive, but he is also doing all the promotional events involved with the book tour, since author Hillenbrand suffers from debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome and cannot go on tour herself.
You know how every so often, you get asked that question, “If you could have dinner with anyone, dead or alive, who would it be?” I have never had an answer to that question until now. And that answer is Louie Zamperini. So if you’re out there Louie, I’ll be waiting for your call… seriously. In case you can’t tell, I highly recommend this book to absolutely everyone. You will not be disappointed by the perspective it offers, and if you are, you are dead inside. Or Hitler’s ghost. Or both.
Final Rating: 5 out of 5 stars.