Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken

By Judy Levin. The much anticipated film version of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 best-selling book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption hits the movie screens, today, December 25th. The early critical reviews are mixed, but I’ll wait and make my own judgments.

In the meantime, if you have not already read the book, please do, whether you intend to see the film or not. My usual recommendation regarding books made into films is to read the book first. I am all in favor of bringing a great book to the screen, but I agree with what I have heard many authors answer when asked what they think of the film version of their book, “my book is my book, the movie is the movie.” And so they remain related, but individual works of art.

So, why should you read Unbroken? It is an amazing true story about survival in body and resilience in spirit written by a talented writer who has survived and succeeded beyond her own challenges and demons.

By now I think everyone has heard about Louis Zamperini, the subject and hero of this true story. Channeling his energies from a troublesome youth with the help of his brother and then the coaches at USC, Louie’s natural talent for running eventually qualified him for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. That alone would make quite a story, and so many stories did come out of that Olympics (Jesse Owens’ triumphant 4 gold medal wins, the University of Washington rowing team’s gold medal win over Germany and Italy told to dramatic effect in Daniel James Brown’s The Boys in the Boat).

Louis was destined to be the track star at the next Olympics, which should have been in 1940 in Tokyo. Those Olympics of course never occurred, and instead Louis found himself enlisting in the Army Air Corps. Flying on a search mission, he survives a dramatic plane crash followed by a record-breaking 47 days in a life raft, only to be taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Now begins the toughest part of Louie’s story –surviving the brutal punishments delivered by the POW camp commander.

There is still a good portion of the book left once the war is over, and you might think what is left to tell? Louis should go back home a hero, be welcomed back by family, and return to his life and running interrupted by the war. With the challenges of an external enemy gone, the battle with interior demons begins, and so Louie’s biggest challenge becomes how to live again in a peacetime world. How to be a man, a husband, a father, and eventually a role model for other troubled boys.

In addition to an action packed story filled with tension, despite the fact we already know Zamperini "lives to tell the story,” Hillenbrand educates the reader with details about the precarious nature of the WW II aircraft, the near impossible survival rate from crashes, and the despicable conditions in POW camps. As Hillenbrand and Zamperini spent hours speaking to one another, the trust and friendship grew and Hillenbrand uses this to her advantage in writing Louis’s story. Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation,” and Louis Zamperini exemplifies the meaning of the name.

Louis Zamperini did not live to see the film version of his life premiere on the big screen. He died at age 97 on July 2, 2014. Read the book and see the film, as a testament to his memory.