Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

I’m breaking my long silence on the book front to share some thoughts about Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Wow, what a book. As the sub-title says it’s a “World War II story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption”.

Louie Zamperini is one of those figures whom, once you read about, you’ll never forget. Helluva naughty as a boy, he found his redemption initially in running and became an Olympic athlete, running the 1500 metres at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the war broke out he enlisted as an Air Force Bombardier and saw incredible action over the Pacific. The aerial war in the Pacific alone is fascinating (especially since I’d enjoyed the TV series Pacific) and quite moving. Then Louie’s plane goes down in the middle of the ocean and he and two crewmen float over 2000 miles in 47 days on minimum rations while battling sharks and being shot at by the Japanese. One of the crewmen dies and Louie and his friend eventually get rescued by the Japanese, only to be sent to prisoner of war camps and having to endure terrible violence at the hands of the Japanese.

I must say that I really hated the Japanese while reading that section of the book and it was only near the end that I was able to step back and see Louie’s tormentors as sick individuals and not representative of the Japanese as a whole. By the time that the US drop the atomic bombs on Japan I could understand entirely why they did so. Hillenbrand doesn’t minimise the devastation that was wrought on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but I think you need to read the book to be able to appreciate what it meant to the US POWs at the time.

And then Louie is back home and trying to piece together his life again while giving inspirational talks. Haunted by nightmares and flashbacks of his horrific experiences, he drifts into alcoholism. I won’t give any more of the plot away than that but I found that my attention was riveted right until the end of the 400 pages (and all the notes).

Equally fascinating I think is the largely untold story of Laura Hillenbrand herself. She is the best-selling and award-winning author of Seabiscuit and it is fitting that her books speak about tremendous resilience and perseverance in the face of adversity since she herself has had to battle debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) from the age of 19. (If you’re reading this Litlove, then you will find her story particularly interesting. I would recommend the Washington Post article on her here).

Just reading the comments on this article I can see that the debates about CFS are pretty heated. No-one I think can deny the serious physical basis for CFS and yet what I find so interesting are the psycho-social aspects of this condition (or conditions). I gather that CFS sufferers hate to be told that their illness is exacerbated by psychological factors but as a psychologist I can’t help thinking that these do play a role.

And how fascinating it would be if Hillenbrand herself (with her incredible writing skills) were to take this up as a writing challenge. She says that she won’t since she lives with it all the time and that she wrote her two (now best-selling) books to escape her own suffering. While she has certainly enriched our lives in the process, Hillenbrand evidently finds it easier to describe others’ heroism and resilience rather than her own. I find myself wishing to know more about her own life and wondering whether she would be able to mirror her characters by rising above her own apparently impossible odds. (And with two such brilliant books behind her, I guess in some ways she already has.)

A few quotes from the reviews:

“The only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit,” said Louie Zamperini’s coach at the University of Southern California, as this track star, who had competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, trained for the 1940 Olympics in Tokyo. But a deeply unfunny thing happened to him on the way to Japan. The 1940 games were canceled. Mr. Zamperini became an Air Force lieutenant. And he wound up going to Japan not as a miler but as a savagely abused prisoner of war. — Janet Maslin, New York Times

BARBARA KLEIN: Laura Hillenbrand spent seven years researching and writing her book. She studied personal letters, photographs, historical documents and books, and prisoner of war descriptions. She talked with many witnesses, both Japanese and American, who survived the war.
She also spent countless hours talking by telephone to Louie Zamperini. Yet she has never met the subject of her book in person because she cannot travel. Ms. Hillenbrand has suffered from extreme chronic fatigue syndrome since she was in college. Because of her condition, she rarely leaves her home in Washington D.C.
STEVE EMBER: Ms. Hillenbrand has told reporters that she likes to write about subjects that let her mentally climb out of her own body. She says she has a sickness she cannot defeat. That is why she is interested in how others face hardship. She chooses subjects who overcome great suffering and learn to face the emotional side of those difficulties. She says athletes are defined by this struggle to overcome difficulty. — Voice of America

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9 Responses to Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

  1. Just a thought says:

    Regardless of what the japanese governement (by the way, is not like people voted for their semigod ruler) threwing those atomic bombs are unacceptable. First of all, it killed innocent civilians, and second- the gave up after the first bomb; a second bomb was NOT necessary.

    • Pete says:

      Yes, I hadn’t thought about the second bomb. Reading Unbroken (and also watching Pacific) I realised how fanatical the Japanese were about not surrendering. They would fight to the last man on those small islands rather than giving in, and they also despised the American POWs for being weak and allowing themselves to be captured. Without the atomic bomb I doubt that Japan would have surrended without significantly more loss of life. But you have an excellent point about the second bomb. My conjecture here is that the US wanted to show Japan that it was no fluke – that they really had the capacity to reproduce this destruction. And then of course there’s the message they were sending to their soon-to-be-enemies the Russians.

  2. litlove says:

    How interesting, Pete – I read about her when Seabiscuit was a big hit, and wondered how she had been doing in the meantime. The psychological factors involved in CFS are very interesting, and very real for me. I don’t doubt for one second that CFS is about holding a person down in such dreadful conditions that they HAVE to rethink their relationship to their life. But CFS sufferers have such a battle to get anyone to accept the reality of their physical illness (because for the most part it’s not visible) any hint that it is influenced by psychological factors can sound like anathema – and of course the death of all medical funding into research on the condition. I think it is a mix of BOTH physical and psychological, and that’s why it’s so hard to overcome (if you shake free of one side, the other clobbers you). I’m sorry Hillebrand isn’t interested in writing about the condition, although I do sympathise. It’s a hard thing to live with, let alone think about on the day to day basis required for writing.

    • Pete says:

      Very interesting and I’m always glad to hear your thoughts on CFS. I had thoughts of emailing Hillenbrand and pointing her to your writing on the subject but then I thought she must have so many well-meaning people writing to her about CFS already. As you say, when there are psychological factors involved then people want to overlook the physical reality of it.

      I was also interested to see Louis Zamperini’s comment that Laura’s suffering with her CFS was worse than his survival ordeals and torture at the hands of the Japanese. At least he was able to launch a successful speaking career on the back of his survival. Much more difficult to do so with an invisible condition such as CFS.

  3. DoctorDi says:

    Yes, Pete, it’s simply not true that all’s fair in love and war, is it? Torture of prisoners of war is always so abhorrent.

  4. KennyJ says:

    One of the most moving books I have ever read. Once I started reading, I could not stop. An amazing story of man’s inhumanity to man and God’s redemptive love.

  5. peace, love, emphaty…

    […]Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand « Couch trip[…]…

  6. Mastop says:

    Just finished ‘Unbroken’. One of the great stories of our or any time. Interestingly, Mr. Zamperini was declared dead in 1944, then outlived all who mourned him at that time. After finishing the book, I googled him, to find out he turned 95 on January 26, 2012. Still with us. God bless him.

  7. Clare says:

    I was struck when I read this book recently by how little I had understood about why people of older generations disliked the Japanese so intensely. Why for instance, my father-in-law, who fought in Korea, was so scornful of the honda I bought in the late 80s, calling it a “rice burner”. Now I get it. The abuse that went on in these camps was tolerated, even encouraged, by the authorities, as it served their purposes. People who spoke out against it were silenced. The POWs were universally despised in Japan as sub-human and weak because they had been captured, where a Japanese would have committed suicide in preference to capture out of some sort of sick sense of familial honor. They thought they were a super race, superior to all other peoples and entitled to subjugate and plunder them without boundaries or any sense of morality.

    I had also thought that dropping the atomic bombs on Japan was evil of us, the U.S.. Now, my feelings have changed. I can see that likely they would not have surrendered without an invasion, that Japanese civilians would have fought to the death, and the death tolls would have been higher. US soldiers would have died in the thousands to bring about this surrender. The POWS in Japanese camps would have been murdered in mass atrocities. And it was this Japanese sense of nationalism that caused all this. And finally–remember, they attacked us. They attacked Hawaii, the Phillipines, etc.

    It seems, at least when I was growing up, that U.S. educations focused on the atrocities committed by The Germans in WW2. I hope that this has been rectified, the war in the Pacific deserves equal attention.

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