Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken," reviewed by Gary Krist

Friday, November 12, 2010; 9:59 PM


A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

By Laura Hillenbrand

Random House. 473 pp. $27

"If I knew I had to go through those experiences again," Louis Zamperini once said of his years as an Army bombardier in World War II, "I'd kill myself." That's a rash statement, but after reading "Unbroken," Laura Hillenbrand's powerful new book about Zamperini's life, few people are likely to doubt him. In the decades since the war's end, publishers have churned out so many "epic tales of endurance" and "amazing sagas of survival" that a reviewer can be excused for approaching yet another one with a certain skepticism. But Zamperini's story has a legitimate claim as one of the most remarkable - and appalling - to emerge from those perilous times. Sometimes the publisher's press release doesn't need to exaggerate.

Not that there's much in "Unbroken" that will be unfamiliar to devotees of wartime narrative nonfiction. Readers of books like James Bradley's "Flyboys," Doug Stanton's "In Harm's Way" and Hampton Sides's "Ghost Soldiers" will recognize many of Zamperini's tribulations, from the harrowing episodes of air combat over the Pacific to the long weeks battling sharks and hunger on a flimsy life raft to the mind-boggling brutalities of incarceration in a Japanese POW camp. Rarely, however, has a single man had to endure such an extraordinary array of woes.

Hillenbrand, whose previous book was "Seabiscuit: An American Legend," seems drawn to underdogs who must struggle against extreme adversity, and in Zamperini she has found an example even pluckier than the little racehorse that could. This time, moreover, she has a subject who can actually speak to her. Zamperini has published his own memoir - "Devil at My Heels," written with David Rensin (2003) - but he cooperated fully with Hillenbrand's project, and much of "Unbroken" is based on extensive telephone interviews with him and those close to him.

This heavy reliance on personal reminiscence does have drawbacks; Hillenbrand presents as fact a few too many stories that seem like family legend. (Did a neighbor really sew little Louie's severed toe back on his foot?) Such improbable anecdotes, though, are largely confined to the book's early pages. Judging by the ample end notes, Hillenbrand has tried hard to verify Zamperini's memories in the written historical record.

The book's early chapters unfold like a "Seabiscuit Redux," as Hillenbrand sketches the career of an undisciplined misfit who starts to find redemption by learning to run very, very fast. After a childhood in Torrance, Calif., notable mostly for flagrant misbehavior ("Louie," Hillenbrand writes, "couldn't bear to be corralled."), Zamperini achieves early success as a high-school miler. Eventually, he qualifies for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and although he doesn't win a medal, he performs well enough to attract the notice of Adolf Hitler himself. ("Ah," the Führer remarks when they are introduced, "you're the boy with the fast finish.")

Zamperini's troubles begin when war breaks out and he joins the Army Air Forces. After surviving several furious engagements with Japanese forces, his plane goes down on a routine search mission, leaving Zamperini and two other airmen adrift on the Pacific with little more than a handful of chocolate bars. This ordeal proves difficult enough, as the men face thirst, exposure and the rigors of sensory deprivation for 47 days. But the real test comes when they are finally captured by the Japanese. Shuttled through a series of increasingly hellish POW camps, Zamperini must endure two years of intense physical and psychological cruelty. One notoriously sadistic jailor - nicknamed "the Bird" - singles Zamperini out for special attention, subjecting him to a campaign of abuse so severe that its effects continue to plague him long after his liberation by American troops.

As the title "Unbroken" suggests, however, the book has an upbeat ending. I won't reveal specifics here, but suffice it to say that Zamperini is still alive as of this writing, having spent much of his postwar life as an inspirational speaker. Now 93, he claims that he hasn't gotten angry about anything for some 40 years. So what is it that enables a man to endure such trials and emerge unbroken? Hillenbrand credits Zamperini's defiance and irrepressible spirit. "The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance," she contends, "[sustained] him in the greatest struggle of his life."

Gary Krist is the author of "The White Cascade" and of a forthcoming book on Chicago after World War I.

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