Monday, October 14, 2013

Book Review: Unbroken

I have heard the buzz about this book and been intrigued, but it took a book club selection of the book to get me to finally read it.  It deserves all the wonderful accolades on the back cover: "gripping in an almost cinematic way" - The New York Times Book Review; "a powerfully drawn survival epic" - The Wall Street Journal; and "stirring and triumphant ... a nearly continuous flow of suspense" - Los Angeles Times.  Rebecca Skloot declares the author, Laura Hillenbrand, "one of our best writers of narrative history."  I concur on all counts.  This book gripped me and would not let me go.

Titled Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, this book tells the tale of Louie Zamperini and his extraordinary life experiences before, during, and after World War II.  From his mischievous days of youth to his exciting Olympic ambitions, his early life was a whirlwind of activity and marked him as an exceptional individual.  But the heart of the story picks up when Louie's plane, a B-24 bomber dubbed the "Green Hornet," goes down in the Pacific Ocean.  There are three survivors clinging to two life rafts.  Their story was so exciting (especially the bits about sharks swimming circles around their raft and even jumping up into the raft in attempts to pull the men into the water) that I began to read bits of it aloud to my boys.  Sean was especially riveted and kept saying, "keep reading."  We read of the time Louie caught a bird and in attempting to eat it, became covered  in lice so that he had to dip his head into the ocean to drown the lice, while his raft-mates beat back the attacking sharks. Sean marveled when the men were able to catch a shark and eat the liver.  We were astonished when we read of the amount of weight lost during the forty-seven days stranded at sea (they shrank down to 67 and 80 pounds).  Louie bargained with God, that if He would save him, Louie would serve Him the rest of his days.

Amazingly, the harrowing adventures while lost at sea paled in comparison to conditions of life after he washed ashore in enemy territory.  I had to stop reading aloud because the details became far too graphic (although I did relent and share with them the fact that the disease beriberi often swelled a man's testicles to the size of bread loaves - boys relish those kind of details).  The stories of other prisoners of war were woven into Louie's tale.  William Harris was captured by the enemy but escaped and swam eight and a half hours across Manila Bay while a storm raged and fish bit him.  He made a run for China, surviving on ants and the assistance of sympathetic Filipinos, until some civilians turned him in to the Japanese.  His tale was especially interesting because he had a photographic memory.  Louie would sneak into the guard house and steal a map, rush it to Harris, who would look it over carefully for a few seconds and then draw up the map as Louie rushed it back to the guard house undetected.  This activity eventually netted a horrific beating for Harris.

The worst of the stories centered around a particular guard, nicknamed "the Bird."  Mutsuhiro Watanabe, "the Bird," became Louie's worst nightmare.  Although he was monstrous to all the POWs, he was especially focused in on Louie, for some reason.  This man made Louie's life a living hell and Louie was filled with hatred and rage toward the man.  Even when he was eventually freed, at the end of the war, he was plagued by nightmares of encounters with "the Bird."  At one point, he woke from a nightmare to find that instead of strangling "the Bird," he was instead strangling his own wife.  Louie began to run to alcohol to avoid facing the demons that plagued him from his war-time experiences.

Just as I was beginning to despair over the story, feeling the weight of all the devastating details and worrying that perhaps there would be no redemption, only a sad tale of a life destroyed by horrific war conditions, Hillenbrand tells of Louie's wife's attempts to drag Louie to a Billy Graham crusade. Referring to actual transcripts of Graham's sermon, it was as if the preacher's words were directly pointed at Louie.  Remembering his bargain with God, he responded and broke away from the hold of alcoholism and resentment.  He even took a trip back to Japan to face and forgive his old guards.  His life was changed and he channeled the tragic story of his life into work reforming troubled youths.  Moreover, he eventually penned a letter to "the Bird," expressing forgiveness and good will.

Although the book was especially gruesome to read, it was a fascinating and truly well-told story.  The pages fell away quickly.  Even if you are not a war-story enthusiast, this book is a riveting, remarkable read.  I thought that I would be frustrated with yet another World War II book selection, but this was my favorite book selection of the past three war-centered books. 

Update: My Unbroken movie review: 12/27/14 - Went with Trevor to see Unbroken yesterday. Thankfully, the violence wasn't too intense for his ten year old eyes, and he did enjoy the movie (perhaps more than I did). I felt disappointed with it. It failed to capture the most important aspects of Louie Zamperini's life and story. Yes, it told of the horrific circumstances the man endured, but it didn't focus on the redemption of his story or on the amazing story of forgiveness the book highlights. These key elements (the bits about Louie's decline from PTSD and his eventual turn to God and journey to forgiveness for his enemies) were left to sentences displayed on the screen in the final moments of the film.

My writing friend, Julie Kloster, articulated my dissatisfaction well when she wrote on Facebook: Teachers remind students to "find the main idea" of stories. Angelina, dear, you missed the main idea of UNBROKEN. What makes this story great isn't the endurance of war torture, but the supernatural ability to forgive those who torture us by "loving our enemies" with the love that we first receive from Christ. What our hearts long for is not just strength, but healing. Where are the scenes of Zamperini's post traumatic stress? Where are the scenes where Zamperini was finally....broken....and recognized his need of God? Where are the face to face encounters of forgiveness with the Japanese soldiers that tortured Zamperini? All of these scenes would have added up to make the beautiful torch run not just touching, but mind blowing. A bit less torture and a lot more redemption would have catapulted this film from inspirational to a classic, life-changing piece of art."

My recommendation is to definitely read the book before seeing the movie. I'm not saying the movie isn't worth watching, but without reading the full account and getting a clear picture of the heart of the story, you are settling for the shell when you could experience a fully-fleshed out story of redemption.

It reminds me of an image I shared on Facebook this past year highlighting the differences between a movie and a book.

(Image shared from The Other 98%'s Facebook page).


Sheila @ The Deliberate Reader said...

Love this book, no matter how hard it is to read. It's such a worthwhile read - an amazing man and story!

Wendy said...

Sheila - Your review was one of the ones inspiring me to read the book. I always trust your judgment when it comes to suggesting a good read!