by Laura Hillenbrand
2010, 497 pages
One of the least amazing things about Louis Zamperini is that he took up skateboarding in his eighties. But it shows the determination that had him competing as a 5,000-meter runner at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It also reveals the attitude that led the young Louis to steal a Nazi banner when the Games concluded.
These two qualities would be vital to him when, during World War II, his plane crashed and Louis found himself on a tiny raft in the middle of the vast Pacific Ocean. His chances of being found by searchers were remote, but if the small craft continued to drift west there was a chance it might make it to land – islands occupied by brutal Japanese forces.
The redemption mentioned in the subtitle is true redemption. Louis starts the story as a thief and a punk. As an airman in World War II he bunks in a cabin plastered with pornography. Many of the Japanese soldiers he meets are sadistic and perverse. So we see evidence of the Fall in this book (described with restraint). But the most amazing thing Louis is able to do is something he knows comes from completely outside his own abilities. God enables Louis to repent and forgive.
This ranks in my top three best biographies I’ve read – it is an amazing story told by an equally amazing storyteller. Laura Hillenbrand is half the age of her subject but the level of detail in her research makes it seem like she must have grown up with him, and tailed behind him wherever he went. And at the same time, she never lets the detail overwhelm the story; this is a large book, but a very fast-paced one.
One caution: the author quotes at least a couple of her subjects taking God’s name in vain. I don’t know if the author is Christian, so she might not have understood that this level of detailed recollection was unnecessary and undesirable.
As for who should read this book, in addition to recommending this to adults – though it is all done with restraint, there is too much brutality and horror here for teens – interested in World War II, this is also a very good book for anyone wondering how the US could possibly have dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, targeting and killing over 150,000 civilians (this is the most conservative estimate). While neither the author nor Louis argues explicitly for the morality of dropping the bomb, Louis’s experiences make it clear that when it came to Japan, there was little difference between the military and the civilian population – rather than surrender Japan was readying its civilian population to fight on, seemingly to the last man and woman. Reading about Japanese brutality, and their thoughts on the disgrace of surrender, gave me a perspective on the atomic bomb I had never before had. It certainly makes the decision much more understandable. Afterward, I still questioned why they couldn’t have first demonstrated the power of the bomb on something other than a city, but, as National Review contributor Victor Davis Hanson explains here, there were only two bombs available, and the Americans were worried that the destruction of just one city would not be enough to induce Japan to surrender. And it seems they were right to worry. Unbroken doesn’t end the debate, but it does give insight into the way both the Americans and Japanese were thinking at the time.
But that is a long aside – the book is about an amazing man, saved by an awesome God. Highly recommended!