Growing up in the 1930s, Louis Zamperini possessed a mischievous and restless spirit and an innate optimism that would become his greatest gift. His older brother, Pete convinced Louis to channel his exuberance into running — a brilliant move that would land Louis a place in the 1936 Olympics. If the war had not intervened, Louis surely would have broken the world record for running the mile.
Laura Hillenbrand craftily begins her narrative at a colossally low point in Louis’ life. After their plane crashed, Louis and two other Army airmen are floating on a raft in the middle of the Pacific — sunburned, bodies riddle with salt sores, starving, and critically dehydrated as circling sharks hungrily await the inevitable. Hope materializes in the droning of an engine from above. So weak, he can barely manage, Louis shoots flares and releases pigment in the water to get the attention the plane. Impossibly, the plane does not bring deliverance, but near annihilation. When it dives into view, the men see Japanese zeroes on its wings. Following this tantalizing introduction, the reader is led to the beginning of Louis story, his wayward childhood, his glorious running career; his life unfolds chronologically, bringing him into World War II, a bombardier stationed on a Pacific Island. The tension created by the first scene carries the reader through several incredible missions, all of which could be the one that lands Louis on that raft.
Spoiler alert — Louis survives his 47 days on the raft only to suffer brutal treatment as a POW in several Japanese prisons. The ups and downs he endures makes one wonder if “Immortal,” is a more apt title than “Unbroken.” The story of a true American hero is in good hands with author Laura Hillenbrand; though unbroken, Louis is not portrayed as undamaged. Hillenbrand tells the story with just enough restraint to engage readers’ hearts, and she unflinchingly portrays the profoundly devastating realities of war.
I alternated between reading the book and listening to the audiobook version of Unbroken during two recent long drives. Actor, Edward Herrmann is a masterful, silver-voiced narrator, although being trapped in the car listening to the some of the story’s gruesome details made me long to be speed reading through them.
An indomitable spirit, Louis Zamperini will turn 95 this year. He gave a baccalaureate address at Bryant University last year.