Friday, November 25, 2011

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand — 496 pgs

Louis Zamperini was the kind of child you didn’t want living in your neighborhood, much less your house. A troublemaker and a thief, Louis was always finding ways to exasperate his parents and get himself into loads of trouble. When his older brother, Pete, decides to take Louis under his wing and teach him to be a track star, Louis begins to do a moral and ethical about face and becomes a celebrated Olympic runner and model citizen, and it seems he’ll have a golden future. But then Zamperini is drafted in the war and trains as a pilot in the fight against the Japanese after the attack on Pearl Harbor. When his plane goes down over the ocean, Louis and two of his fellow airmen begin the fight of their lives against the tossing waves, the beating sun and the hungry sharks. Floating aimlessly on a raft for over 2000 miles, Louis and his fellow crewman think it can’t get any worse for them; then it does. When Louis and the only other survivor spot land, they discover what true horror is, for they have landed in the hands of the enemy and the Japanese will never let them forget that they are indeed prisoners of war. Moving from camp to camp, Louis finds himself among hundreds of other P.O.W.s and is brutally abused and tortured day after day, falling into the hand of a sadistic and malevolent Japanese captor known as “The Bird”. Though The Bird is the most awful of his minders, there are others who make life for the men one brutal trial after another, and it’s almost all the men can do to survive the indignities, humiliations and torture they face each and every day. When the end finally comes for Louis and the other prisoners, an amazing story of revival, healing and forgiveness begins to take place. Through the horrendous afflictions and degradations they suffer, the men begin to lose themselves, but one man, Louis Zamperini, will remain, amazingly, Unbroken.

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.

29 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

Great review! We actually saw a little kid maybe 4 or 5 smoking once, and we were just blown over! (Its' mother was with it, too!)

Trisha said...

Smoking at 4? That's insane. Yeah, I know the rest of the stuff is probably more insane, but that fact sure stands out for some reason. :)

Sandy Nawrot said...

Excellent review! I so loved this book. It really wasn't the audio that stood out for me as much as the story, but will most definitely be in my top books of the year.

Peppermint Ph.D. said...

I've got this one on my WishList...I need an audio for a couple of upcoming trips...I may check the library for this one.

TheBookGirl said...

I've heard good things about this one, but have been reluctant to try it for two reasons -- the difficulty of the subject matter makes it something I really have to be in a certain frame of mind to read, and secondly, I had a hard time getting into Seabiscuit to the point that I never actually finished it. I'm wondering it you read Seabiscuit and how you think this one compares to that?

Hope you had a great Thanksgiving Heather :)

bermudaonion said...

Smoking and drinking at 4 and 5? Who was providing the cigarette butts and alcohol? This book sounds fascinating!

Jenners said...

It was an amazing story, wasn't it? You could take out any one part and it would have made an amazing story by itself. I do think it had a very journalistic feel to the book that kept me from totally falling in love … but his story is one that doesn't really need embellishment.

Suko said...

This book does sound really interesting, although like many others I cannot understand the smoking and drinking at such a tender age. Wow! Excellent, thoughtful review, as always!

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

what a fantastic review - and I can only imagine the horrors inflicted by the Japanese - they have a developed a fine art to torture techniques

Lisa said...

Wonderful review, Heather! I'd been a little scared off by a couple of reviews lately, but now I'm eager to read this one!

Jenny said...

I feel like this is one of those stories I'd have some trouble believing! Wow.... a kid smoking by 4 and drinking by 5??? I'd be interested in seeing how that came about! I'm not actually sure if I'll get to this even though I've heard great things, but great review!!

Geosi said...

Sometimes, some books don't start off well but later manage to come back strongly in the end. I will ceratinly pick this up at apoint in time.

Beth F said...

I'm not at all sure this is a book for me. I'm not usually attracted to war stories or veteran stories. But I like Hillendrand's writing and the strength it must have taken to survive is incomprehensible.

Kaye said...

Not too sure I could read this one with the torture scenes even though I do like books set during war time. I watched an old movie March to Bataan and it just broke my heart.

I wonder along with Kathy as to who was providing the cigarettes and alcohol? Parents? Abusive parents if that were the case.

Excellent review, Heather, as always.!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I liked this book a lot, but recall thinking to myself I was happy I didn't have a son like this as a child....gezzz

Harvee said...

Sounds like a horrendous tale of survival by a vry tough and gutsy person. Nice interview

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

This book has been on my radar (Hillenbrand's years of research call me to read it, eventually), but for some reason I haven't yet picked it up.

Is it the length that keeps me away? I don't know. Good to know your take on the audio (and that, should I choose print, I've been warned that it's a slow start).

Your excellent and thorough review (the good, the bad, and the ugly!) has given me some things to consider when I do read UNBROKEN. Thanks, Heahter!

Kailana said...

I have heard so many good things about this book. I really want to read it, but just haven't found the time...

Marg said...

This was an exceptional read and well worth leaving my fiction based comfort zone to read!

softdrink said...

Yours is the first review that's made me want to read this one! Great review!

Marie said...

Wasn't it great? I'd love for everyone to read Unbroken!

Amy said...

This sounds like a really powerful and difficult read. I'd been skipping by it when it was mentioned before but I'm glad I read your review. Sounds like audio was a good choice so I'll keep that in mind. Thanks!

Ti said...

I agree, the beginning was a bit of a challenge but once you get to the raft...then it really picked up.

I was intrigued by the guards. Especially, The Bird. I am always fascinated by what makes a person cruel or evil. We never really found out, but those parts were interesting.

Interesting tidbit for you...

You know how Louis kept saying he heard the voices? He never mentioned them in his auto-biography and Hillenbrand admitted to making that part up in this book. Can you believe that?

Natalie~Coffee and a Book Chick said...

I cannot wait to read this one. Every time I'm in a bookstore, it's sitting on the shelf, yelling at me to pick it up! :)

Amy said...

It's hard to believe Louis was smoking and drinking by age 5, what were his parents doing? I'm glad his brother found a positive place to direct Louis' focus! This is a spectacular review, Heather! I'm not sure I will be able to listen to or read about all of the abuse and torture Louis and the other men suffered in the camps. That kind of thing twists my stomach into knots and actually frightens me (that there are people walking this earth willing, wanting to treat fellow human beings that way. It's amazing that Louis remained Unbroken and a testament to his strength and spirit..this makes the book one I want to read.

You're not the first reviewer who has mentioned getting tripped up in the beginning by some boring parts of the story. I'm glad it improved markedly for you and became difficult to stop listening too. I'm not sure if I'll read this book but I'm going to put it on my wish list.

Lauren Hillenbrand, the author, is a woman I have the utmost respect for. She has quite a story herself and she's another reason I'm interested in reading this book.

Thank you :o)

nomadreader said...

My book club is reading this for tomorrow, and I still haven't started it (eek!) Your review encourages me to at least *start* it before tomorrow night, and I may well still finish it after book club meets. I don't read much narrative non-fiction, and I seem to prefer war fiction to non-fiction, but I'm fascinated by this one. Great review.

Michelle (my books. my life.) said...

This is one of those books that I have heard tossed around but didn't actually know what it was about until your review. Funny how that happens.

Sounds interesting. I generally prefer my nonfiction in audio (I'm not patient enough in print), so I will keep this in mind when I'm in the mood for some.

Aths said...

I read a few chapters of this book when it first came out and absolutely loved it! I never got back to it yet, but I will someday. Loved your review, it reminded me that I need to read this one sooner rather than later.

Brasil said...

I read this book in two days flat and I know that, had I had the time, I would have read it in one sitting. This is a book that grips you, draws you in and leaves you feeling a slightly better person for having read it.

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