Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I first heard about this book when it was discussed by Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier on their podcast, SModcast. Mosier was reading the book and described part of the story.
During the Second World War an American plane went down in the Pacific. After days at sea, the three surviving crew members were in a bad way. They had no food, water or protection from the elements.
To make matters worse they were being hounded by sharks (collective noun for sharks is a “shiver”, which seems lame. Should be something more menacing- threat, marauder or stalk perhaps), which circled them and grazed the bottom of their raft.
A plane appeared, but hopes of salvation were dashed and it turned out to be a Japanese plane that open fired on them. The men faced a terrible choice- stay on the raft and risk being shot or leap into the ocean to be safe from the bullets but brave the sharks?
The strongest of the group leapt beneath the waves, and after every pass would haul himself out of the water.
It’s a horrifyingly captivating story, a nightmarish image of a terrifying situation. The men caught between two dreadful options, making the rock and a hard place saying seem like a walk in the park.
The event is utterly astonishing and sticks with you, but Hillenbrand’s book is filled with amazing, shocking events. By the books end you realise that the book’s focus, Louis Zamperini lived through enough for several lifetimes.

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Born into a poor Italian family in the early 20th century, Zamperini was a headstrong, independent young boy who revelled in pranks and petty crime. He could easily have gone down a tragic, tough path in life if not for the efforts of his older brother, Pete. Pete saw that his kid brother was incredibly fast and pushed him towards running, where Zamperini discovered a focus and a discipline he had been lacking.
Zamperini was phenomenal, winning races and earning the honour of representing his country at the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin.
He didn’t win any medals, but was tipped for big things and focused on the 1940 games.
World events were against him and WW2 broke out. Zamperini joined the army air force and became part of a bomber crew in the Pacific.
On a routine flight his plane went down, and along with two others he was forced to survive on a raft. He survived weeks at sea before being captured by the Japanese where he suffered horrific abuse as a PoW (Prisoner of War).
At war’s end Zamperini returned home and married, but the psychological scars from the tortures inflicted on him marred his civilian life and he struggled. After years of destructive drinking and fixating on his past Zamperini would finally find a way of getting his life on track. He would go on to live a long, happy life as he continues to do so today.
If Zamperini wasn’t a real person his life story would be utterly implausible, but as the saying goes- truth is stranger than fiction.
Delinquent, Olympian, soldier, prisoner, drunk, motivational speaker. It’s quite the life story.
Zamperini’s story Is a phenomenal one and I urge everyone to go out and pick up a copy of this wonderful book. Louis Zamperini is an inspirational figure, a hero. A man who underwent horrific hardships and struggled at times, but who through it all showed astonishing levels of character, strength and will. He’s by no means perfect, but his failings are all to understandable and human, and the fact that he overcame these is what makes his story so brilliant.

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Credit and praise must be given to Hillenbrand who writes in a wonderful, engrossing and engaging way. It’s a great read, you fly through page after page, utterly absorbed in the fascinating story which is relayed in clever prose.
Hillenbrand has clearly done her research and facts and figures appear throughout, but are woven through the story seamlessly. It never stops being a very human story of adversity, inner strength and redemption.
Hillenbrand show us Zamperini’s life in a sympathetic way, giving us a sense of an impulsive, full of life young man who you soon warm to.
She does however widen the scope at times, to give a better sense of the situation and times Louie was living in. There’s the long agonising wait of those back home as they wait for news, insights and stories of the scarred veterans and the problems they faced on returning to their old lives.
I especially liked a short section after the ’36 games where one American stays on and sees the real nature of Hitler’s Germany. It’s a dreadful hint of what’s to come and also highlights the naïveté of Louie, his fellow athletes and the world at large with regards to the Nazis.
Hillenbrand not only tells a life story but rather explores and explains the context. She addresses the Japanese cultural background which caused their attitude towards captives and the problems and shortcomings of the US military.
Its the section during and after Zamperini’s imprisonment that effected me most, prompting horrified shock and anger at the levels of cruelty humans are capable of, and the fact that even years later and though there are no physical signs, those who served would have to deal with their experiences for the rest of their life.
A section detailing the experiences of some former PoWs was truly heartbreaking.
I urge everyone to go out and read this book. You may not be a fan of history books or war stories, but Zamperini’s story needs to be shared with the world. There are times when it’s hard to read, but I believe we need to remember the horrors of the war so that we can avoid then happening in future. And also above it all Zamperini is a great example of the resiliency of the human spirit and a true hero.
Verdict: A marvellously written story of an extraordinary life. Hillenbrand provides an engaging, in depth look at Zamperini’s life and introduces the reader to an inspirational, likeable figure. A must read. 10/10
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO

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