Sunday, December 4, 2011

Unbroken, By Laura Hillenbrand

I have had the opportunity to read a lot of books this year. A lot. But in any group there is always the one that rises to the top and stands out singularly because of its power, resonance, and quality.

Of all the books I've read this year--some for my book club and some for pure enjoyment--the best of the bunch is Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. As I told my mom while describing this book, "Whatever you're reading right now, this is better."

Laura Hillenbrand, who is also the author of Seabiscuit, suffers from a debilitating form of CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome,) which forces her to stay at home most of the time. She's devoted the last 7 years to researching Unbroken, including conducting about 50 interviews with its subject, Louis Zamperini.

Louis Zamperini, who is now a spry 94 year old, has lived a life few of us can imagine--partly of his own doing, like competing in the 1936 Olympics-- and partly as a victim of circumstance. The circumstances that were not of his choosing happened while he was a bombadier during WWII. The plane he was in was shot down, and the 3 survivors drifted for 47 days until being picked up by the Japanese.

What followed then was 2 years in 2 different POW camps in conditions beyond our imagination. What made the conditions even worse was a particularly sadistic guard, nicknamed "The Bird," who singled Louis out and attempted to victimize him in every way possible. The army's pursuit of this guard after the war ended is another element that makes this book so captivating.

I say "attempted," because one of the interesting things that the book focuses on is the issue of dignity vs humiliation. The authoress describes the importance of dignity in ways I've never read before, making it a thing as tangible and necessary to existence as food or air. In other words, no matter how bad the conditions are, you are only a victim of you allow yourself to be.

Even if you know the basics of the story, there is something else that makes it worth reading, and that is the series of odd coincidences that seemed to pop up here and there throughout Louis's life, and usually during his darkest moments. I don't want to give too much away, but these oddities certainly make the story even more compelling.

For those with weak stomachs who may be worried about the way the war violence is portrayed in the book, I would say this: It is "realistic," but not "gratuitous." In other words, the authoress tells things as they happened, but doesn't overdo it.

The important thing to remember about this book is that not only is this a story of "Survival," but also of "Resilience and Redemption," just as the tagline reads. Louis's POW experience is definitely the grittiest part of the book, but there is so much more than that....there's his adventurous childhood as the town rascal and thief, his foray into becoming a world-class runner, his family, his post-war trauma, and the experiences that finally brought him peace.

This is a book about a man who has experienced the full circle of life and has lived to tell about it. Laura Hillenbrand writes with such amazing quality, you feel like you're seeing everything as it is happening.

I won't say anymore about it, except to implore you, again, to read it. I found a video from the Today show to include that will, hopefully, whet your appetite. Some of the other videos about it give away too much.

I recommend this book HIGHLY...for everyone. I also recommend that, if you are planning on reading it, to avoid the videos that tell a lot about it. The less you know, the more powerful the book will be when you read it.

(Be sure to pause the music below before viewing the video...)

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