Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Summary: The true story of the life of Louie Zamperini during World War II.  Zamperini was an Olympic runner when he joined the Air Force, with the potential of medaling in the next Olympic Games.  Switching his life of running for a life in the military, Zamperini worked in the massive B-24 planes.  When his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean during the war, Zamperini spent weeks adrift at sea before being captured by the Japanese.  That capture began years of internment and abuse as a prisoner of war.

Musings: Unbroken has been making the rounds on the "best of 2010" book lists, and because I feel like I know little about World War II, I was interested in learning about one man's tale.

Zamperini has a fantastic story, though it's clear from this book that his story is only one of many incredible stories coming out of POWs.  There's much in Zamperini's life that brings amazement--his skill as a runner, his ability to survive weeks aboard a life raft, and his endurance of years of torture as a POW.

Hillenbrand has done an exceptional job of bringing various pieces of Zamperini's life together in a cogent and compelling narrative.  She portrays a multi-dimensional view of Zamperini, showing his boyhood as a trouble maker, his resilience during the war, and his struggles with PTSD after returning home.  Although Zamperini is clearly a brave man, Hillenbrand doesn't hide his dark moments, nor does she glorify the idea of "war heroes."

In fact, one of the issues that most stuck out to me was despite the important justifications for going to war, there was so much senselessness in what happened.  For example, Hillenbrand explains the extraordinarily high injury and death rate from accidents, particularly within the air force.  Military personnel were more likely to die by mistakes than through combat.  This is clearly the case for Zamperini, whose plane goes down while on a rescue mission for another downed plane.

Hillenbrand also details the extraordinary difficulty of POWs adjusting to "normal" life after the war's end.  Men who had remained hopeful and alive through the worst circumstances were too traumatized to enjoy the life they had held out for.  Zamperini was fortunate to be able to find solace (for him, in God), but undoubtedly many more were unable to.

However, while I enjoyed the story and learned much from Zamperini's experiences, I felt bothered about judging the book itself.  One of the things that gnawed at me as I read was the definition of what makes a book "good." I had seen Unbroken on so many "best of" lists that I think I expected something more.  When a fiction writer tells an amazing story, we laud them for it, but should we do so for a nonfiction writer?  Is Hillenbrand's unquestionable ability to research and pull together so many disparate sources enough?  For me, a truly great book has to have something in style and form that sets it apart, and I just didn't see that in Unbroken.  The story is clearly told chronologically, and Hillenbrand keeps the narrative moving quickly, investing in strong character detail throughout.  However, in the end, the book is still a standard narrative, and because of that, it didn't stand out to me as something special, beyond the extra-ordinariness of the story itself.  I don't say this to be critical--I thought the book was very good--but it's not the kind of book that would make a top reading list for me.

P.S.  On a separate note, I accidentally requested the large print copy of Unbroken at my library instead of a regular copy.  I was worried that the enormously large size of the text would be a distraction, but I found it didn't bother me much (though I didn't like the size of the book because of the large print--it was over 700 pages and quite heavy).

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