Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

ย ย ย  Hillenbrand, Laura. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010.

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Shattering! Absolutely shattering. This is the sort of book that’s exhausting to read, and yet, it’s impossible to put down until you get to the bitter end. In this case, making it to the bitter end is well worth the effort, because the ending is a good one.

I’m not much of a World War II buff, nor do I pay all that much attention to Olympic runners (which may lead you to wonder why I even decided to read this book. It’s because so many people have been talking about it and recommending it, and I’m nothing if not someone who, had she been born a cat, would’ve been killed long ago by her curiosity). Anyway, I knew nothing at all about Louis Zamperini, the “star” of this book, and, it turns out, I also knew next to nothing about the WWII prisoner of war camps in Japan, although, all my life, I’ve heard plenty of people refer to the horrors of the Pacific stage of that particular war. My father-in-law, who landed at D-Day, who was in the Battle of the Bulge, and who helped to free prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp, always talked about the huge relief he’d felt when the war ended, because it ended just as he and his friends were headed for the Pacific. They were more terrified of that possibility than anything they’d already experienced.

Reading this book, I could understand my father-in-law’s terror. This one is not for the faint of heart. Every time you find yourself thinking this life of torture and humiliation can’t possibly get any worse, it does. It also helped me understand how the clash of two cultures that have almost nothing in common can play itself out in war. The Japanese were so isolated (by choice) for so long that there was no way the Americans and the Europeans could have known much about them or have had any clue what they might encounter from these highly intelligent people whose ideas of things like honor (better to kill oneself than ever to be captured by an enemy) were so very different from ours. (It’s hard not to make comparisons to today, the way we send our young men and women to fight in the Middle East, to places many probably couldn’t even locate on a map, let alone know anything about the people’s customs and beliefs).

Louis is a true hero, though, the kind who, had he been born in this decade, would have been thrown into a juvenile detention center before he was even thirteen. Thanks to a persistent older brother, who was determined to channel his brother’s energy and intelligence into something worthwhile, he was given the chance to shine as a runner who made it to the Olympic games. His “tough boy” resilience and craftiness are what afforded him the ability to survive a plane crash and subsequent capture by the Japanese, which led to his imprisonment in several different POW camps.

The story is harrowing. “Edge of your seat” and “biting your fingernails to the quick” are clichรฉs that were invented for books like this one. Hillenbrand writes clearly and passionately and with attention to detail, bringing the setting and characters to life in all their horror and glory. My shock, after reading it, is not so much that so many POWs died in Japan but, rather,ย  that any managed to survive at all.

I will remember this book. Next time I’m complaining because I have a bad chest cold; or it is 95 degrees with 95% humidity, and I’m stuck outside for an hour; or I’m sitting in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, and I’m tempted to think, “It just doesn’t get any worse than this,” I will remember this book and think, “Oh, yes it does. You areย  extremely fortunate, and don’t you forget it.”

Like I said earlier, it isn’t for the faint of heart. But if your heart is strong, if you can handle torture and violence described in detail, give it a go. If there were ever an incredible, unbelievable story about a man, this one is it, and I assure you, it’s worth getting to the end.