In the Fall of 2011 I read what turned out to be one of my favorite books: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. The book is a gripping account of the life of Louie Zamperini, which at times borders on being in-credible. The events and circumstances would be unreal, except that they truly happened. I often read the book shaking my head and thinking “you cannot make this stuff up.”
The book has received popular and critical acclaim, including:
- #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
- Top nonfiction book of the year by Time magazine
- Winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for biography
- Indies Choice Adult Nonfiction Book of the Year award
Here is the description from Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption on Amazon.com:
“From Laura Hillenbrand, the bestselling author of Seabiscuit, comes Unbroken, the inspiring true story of a man who lived through a series of catastrophes almost too incredible to be believed. In evocative, immediate descriptions, Hillenbrand unfurls the story of Louie Zamperini–a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. During a routine search mission over the Pacific, Louie’s plane crashed into the ocean, and what happened to him over the next three years of his life is a story that will keep you glued to the pages, eagerly awaiting the next turn in the story and fearing it at the same time. You’ll cheer for the man who somehow maintained his selfhood and humanity despite the monumental degradations he suffered, and you’ll want to share this book with everyone you know.” –Juliet Disparte
The subtitle, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption” captures the main essence of the book, while still underselling the contents. Labeling Zamperini resilient is akin to calling a Purple Heart recipient brave. Words fall short. Zamperini isn’t so much resilient as he’s elastic, bending to the forces around him, while somehow never breaking. He’s über-resilient to the 3rd power. He refuses to quit, die, or accept defeat.
The book became a film, directed by Angelina Jolie and was released in 2014. I recommend the film, especially if it is accompanied by reading the book, as they both help each other. Though the movie seems to downplay the suffering of some episodes, it also highlights some aspects that assisted my imagination once I saw the film.
Issues raised in the biography include: brotherhood and camaraderie, survival, the importance of human dignity, torture and the treatment of prisoners, theodicy, the role of hope and faith, and both the depths of despair and the heights of mercy and grace.
As you’ll realize once you read the book or watch the movie, it’s apparent that the motive for, and context of, Paul’s various “troubles” is vastly different from Louie Zamperini, but while reading Unbroken, again and again I referred to these words from Paul:
“I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked” (2 Cor 11.23b-27)
Imagine three years filled with experiences like Paul’s and you’ll be close to the pain and suffering Zamperini faced.
While the book would be worth reading just for the absurd account of his captivity, it moves up near the top of reading lists because of the redemptive aspects involved. It’s not sugary, sappy sentimentality; the book outlines clearly a story of redemption in its human pain and less-than-perfect ending.
In different ways his life has impressed upon me the role of loving one’s neighbor and one’s enemy, made me re-think issues related to torture, and given me a renewed respect for the generation that lived through WWII.
Read this book; go see this movie. I am convinced that the impression it leaves will be deep, profound, and long-term.
*An earlier version of this post was published in September 2011.