Book Recommendation: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Ryan NealGeneral, Ryan Neal

This past summer I made a commitment to read more outside of my typical interests and beyond anything that might be counted as related to work, which means that books on theology, hermeneutics, and ethics would not count toward this commitment. Think of it as New Year’s resolution made 7 months late, or (my preference) made 5 months early. To kick-start this commitment I asked my father to name the top 5 or 10 books he’s ever read. It took him about 2.79 seconds (give or take) to say: Unbroken.

Biographies are compelling only when the life examined is interesting, punctuated with events that keep the plot moving. I don’t care to read a biography of someone famous if their life was not interesting. Oftentimes biographies are forgettable. Here’s one that’s not.

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand, is a gripping account of Louie Zamperini’s life, 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.”

“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.

Issues raised in the book 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, 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. In different ways it 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. I am convinced that the impression it leaves will be deep, profound, and long-term.