This book was chosen for the Books, Babes, and Bordeaux book club’s October read, and while I knew it was a long book, I also knew it was probably the most celebrated pick for clubs all over America this year. I have to say although the book got off to a slow start initially, at about the 150 page mark it became a book I couldn’t stop listening to. I chose the audio format because I wanted to experience this book in a short period of time, and I already knew Sandy was digging the audio and I thought I would too. The book was narrated by Edward Herrmann, and I thought he was a good choice because his voice, while not very adept at inflection, had a smooth and rolling quality to it that kept me enthralled and hungering for more of Louis’ story. I wouldn’t hesitate to listen to Herrmann again, but I think I would probably be a little choosy as to which of his books I picked up. I get a deep gut feeling that he would be best with works of narrative nonfiction, such as this one.
I read the first few chapters of this book with my eyebrows raised. I couldn’t imagine living with a child like Louis. Smoking cigarette butts by the age of four and drinking by age five, it was hard to believe he was indeed a child! He was terribly badly behaved and was a force to be reckoned with when it came to discipline from his teachers and parents. He really broke his mother’s heart with all his antics. When his older brother, Pete, stepped in to remold Louis into a track star, I was wondering if that would have any effect on this boy of a thousand crimes. But the adulation that Louis found as a runner seemed to be all he needed to turn from his waywardness and start life anew. I admit to being a little bored with the sections that recounted his running and Olympic endeavors, and worried that the book would devolve into a categorization of minutiae that I wouldn’t be able to engage with. Even the early bits about the war and Louis’ training were somewhat stagnant sections for me. But from the moment the book took a turn into a survival story, I was hooked and couldn’t peel myself away for very long. Louis’ cataclysmic adventure from sky to sea took me to heights of incredulity and anxiousness. It was the type of thing that was almost too unbelievable to be true. But it was true. Every bit of it.
With Louis and the two other crash survivors floating about aimlessly in the ocean, life became a very different sort of affair. It was wild and unpredictable, and when the sharks got involved, savage as well. The men drifted for 47 days, and it was a miracle they survived because they had little food and water, and had to come up with ways not only to eat and drink, but to protect themselves from the elements. When they saw the telltale signs that land was ahead, it seemed the journey was over, but that, my friends, was really when it all began. Louis and his crewmate were taken at once by the Japanese, and before long, the goodwill they had been met with melted away into the kind of torture that made my stomach twist to read. Not only did the men’s health deteriorate rapidly, the savage mental and physical abuse they suffered was enough to make me see red and set me to seething. I grew heavy hearted to listen to the indignities heaped upon these men, and especially hear about the psychotic behavior and repugnance of the man the captives called The Bird. This man seemed to have a special hatred for Louis and followed him from camp to camp raining abuse on him with glee. These men suffered in ways you and I would never be able to comprehend, and it was both saddening and frightening to hear the ways in which they were dehumanized and overpowered.
When the day of reckoning comes for Louis and the other men at his camp, the journey for them comes full circle. But some of them will never be the same again, and even Louis can’t escape the demons he leaves behind in the camp. These terrors seize him and make his life a living nightmare, until one day the unthinkable happens and Louis does another about face that will astound and shock readers. It’s only when Louis reaches this final step that he can begin to live again and be the person he was made to be, and though I could never have gotten to the point Louis did, I’m filled with admiration for the man and for all the survivors that not only defied the odds at the camp but that then made their way back into the world they had left so long ago. Hillenbrand, while not an overly artistic conveyor of plot, does her subject justice by being balanced and injecting her story with key bits of detail that left me feeling as if I could see and hear everything that was going on. It wasn’t stylish writing but had a very skillful journalistic feel to it that gave the story a level of credibility that it otherwise might have lacked.
This was definitely one of the better pieces of narrative nonfiction I’ve ever read, and though there were some stumbling points towards the beginning, by the time I got to the grist of the story, I simply couldn’t look away. It was a book I think will shock many readers, not only because of the story it tells, but because of the conclusion, which some will find unsatisfying and others will find amazing. It’s a very emotional book, yet it never veers into histrionics, and it was a story that I am unlikely to ever forget. Recommended.