Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

by Robert A. Parker

This 2010 work is a remarkable book. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, a track star whom I do recall from my youth, although not as a star, much less the first potential four-minute miler. But the perseverance he developed from track does lead to his survival during his wartime experiences, and those experiences do justify both his life and this tremendous book.

Hillenbrand begins by describing Zamperini as a precocious brat in his youth, always stealing, brawling, and deceiving both adults and friends. But this toughness and independence would, as Hillenbrand describes, help him survive a crash landing at sea, a month and a half in a foundering pontoon lifeboat, and two and a half years of horrendous treatment by the Japanese as a prisoner of war.

How Zamperini survived is brilliantly told, the longest section being given to his story as a POW in Japan—and how he and his friends survived the cruelty of their captors, especially a brutal guard they called the Bird, as well as the horrendous physical conditions at the camps. The dominance of this section is no doubt due not only to the length of this experience but to the accompanying stories of the many military men who were with him at the camps and whom the author tracked down. Whereas only two men survived the ditching in the Pacific, and that physical trial lasted 47 days.

Equally heart-rending are the repercussions Zamperini endured after the war, the drinking, the violent temper, and the abusiveness that led his wife to threaten divorce. This was certainly PTSD before it was known as that, but it is known today and makes this book all the more powerful. What is lacking, however, is an effective portrayal of the redemption referred to in the volume’s subtitle. Yes, it may have originated with sermons by Billy Graham, but the author does not describe how our hero converted to being a born-again Christian, nor his subsequent activity as a Christian evangelist.

I think this element is missing because this conversion from hatred to forgiveness and from a closed mind to being open about his experiences, happened inside his mind, even inside his soul, and that perspective is something either the author or Zamperini was not interested in discussing.

Indeed, when we get inside Zamperini in this work, it concerns his thinking about the situation at hand, whether running a four-minute mile, surviving a crash, or enduring the trials of the camp. But there is nothing about the faith he was raised in, or the life philosophy that these horrible events might have inspired. Everything we witness, his trials and his degradation, as well as those of others, are explored in their own terms. That is, on the surface level of our existence. Or was Zamperini perhaps reluctant to discuss leaving his Catholic upbringing for the Christian evangelists?

That is, his final redemption appears to exist much further inside this person that Hillenbrand wishes to portray. Indeed, she leaves him looking deep into a bible, and then a year later returning to Japan to forgive his prison guard tormentors. Both are the actions of a Christian. But what happened inside Zamperini in those intervening 12 months to prompt this change and his return to Japan? This, I believe, is the true final chapter in this story of Louis Zamperini. And we never know it. Was Zamperini incapable of explaining his internal life? Or had Hillenbrand no interest in it? Instead, she condenses the remaining years of his life, as he reaches ninety, as well as the remaining years of a few of his POW companions. Which left me unsatisfied.

For this is the story of a man who was unbroken during his wartime experiences, then was broken by the after effects when he returned home, and finally pulled himself together and became a contributing member of society. But we do not experience that final development. In the acknowledgments, Hillenbrand mentions her poor health, and one wonders if that might have forced her to cut off the Zamperini story earlier than she might otherwise have done. I have also read elsewhere that she suffers from a serious illness.

During the weeks on a fragile craft that he shared with two others, during that frightening time in the middle of the Pacific, with its brilliant description of circling sharks and an angry sea, Zamperini promised God that if he survived he “would serve you forever.” And in his frightening postwar decline, a Billy Graham sermon prompts him to recalls this. But it comes off as a sidelight in Hillenbrand’s telling, whereas I believe it must have been central to Zamperini’s recognition of his human and spiritual failings at that point. And it is where the author has shortchanged the reader.

I am afraid I am harping on one chapter in an otherwise brilliant tale, a tale of courage and perseverance, of suffering and the denial of despair, of stubbornness and clever subterfuge. But the reference to survival and resilience in the subtitle is followed by the word, redemption. And unlike survival and resilience, that word is not explored or dramatized. Thus, for me, there is no true climax to this story. Zamperini descends into the hell of postwar violence and drunkenness, and then is mysteriously resurrected.

This version may be valid in describing the life of Christ, but this is the life of a human being struggling on his own. There is no God in his life, at least in this telling of his life. And, needless to say, I think there should be, at least be a spiritual element. Zamperini’s attendance at Billy Graham rallies is not enough. We need to see his internal reactions to Graham’s message.

What was remarkable about this book is that each time I returned to it, I immediately remembered both the entire Zamperini story to date and where I had left off. This rarely happens to me, and I attribute it to Hillenbrand’s sterling craft. She is a magnificent story-teller. At least, when it comes to surface events. Here, these are the crash, the loneliness in an angry sea, and the horror and inhumanity of the wartime Japanese prison camps. But the word “unbroken” also refers to our hero’s interior life. And here, the interior life is confined to his reactions to the brutality he faced. Whereas, I would claim it also refers to his spiritual resources that extend beyond those brutal experiences and should well include his interpretation of life’s meaning, particularly of his own life’s meaning. (April, 2016)

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