Her Chronic Fatigue Syndrome is so debilitating that she rarely leaves her home in Washington, DC. And the Zamparini story is a profound, thrilling, heartbreaking, emotional, inspiring, cannot-quit-reading examination of human endurance. So, Hillenbrand’s book about him, Unbroken (Random House, 2010), throws the human bundle of body, soul, and spirit into a veritable taffey-pulling machine.
She takes us into a ravishing tour of what humans can achieve, inflict, and endure. I think an author who has great health could not have written this knowing gaze into the physical and mental and spiritual dimensions.
This is one of the most powerful books I’ve ever read. Here’s the basic story:
Louis Zamperini, born in 1917, grew up in Torrance, California as an incorrigible thief, hoodlum, and hobo. Really tough kid. Fearless. But, in High School, all of his delinquent ways turned into world class athletic skill on the track. He became one of the fastest runners in the world. After running very impressively in the 1936 Olympics (and meeting Hitler), he joined the Army Air Force in September, 1941.
In May of 1943, Second Lieutenant Louie Zamperini was a bombardier on a B-24 which crashed into Pacific. That crash also plunges the reader into an unimaginable, harrowing and astonishing 27-month World War 2 adventure — floating 2,000 miles in a raft, spending two years in the demonic brutality of POW camps, navigating the shoals of return to normal civilization life, and incredible redemption.
Along the way, Hillenbrand takes her readers to scenic overviews of kindness and cruelty, the fierce visage of terrorism, the shredding of human dignity, marriage, alcoholism, fear, faith, and forgiveness.
Louis Zamperini is a true and full hero. You want to see a real hero and consider the mystery of how they appear in history? This book is the best examination of that I’ve ever read. Incredibly, Zamperini is, of this writing, still very much alive at 93! On his 81st birthday, he ran one leg of the Olympic torch relay in Japan. Two weeks ago, he threw out the first pitch of the Red Sox-Cubs game at Fenway Park in Boston.
But Unbroken is full of heroes and heroism. You cannot read this against the backdrop of a US Congressman sending photos of his own crotch to young women without wondering what the hell happened to character, integrity, and heroism.
As a writer, Hillenbrand fully matches Zamperini. In addition to her own physical affliction, she has the mature and sensitive eye of a novelist. The reader feels every scene. You will not get through the book without gasps, groans, full laughter, tears, and encounters with transcendent reality. Trust me: Unbroken‘s 406 pages will not let you eat, sleep, or work.
Interesting sidebar: this book about military men contains very little bad language. My dad, also a World War 2 veteran, told me he never heard the degrading language then that became commonplace in later times. How refreshing to read a book that is faithful to a subject and a time.