Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

My book club selected this book primarily because Hillenbrand is also the author of Seabiscuit. Most of us had seen the film though, unusually for us, no one had read the book.

Unbroken is a nonfiction account of Louis Zamperini, a former Olympian who went down in the Pacific during World War II. He survived a miraculous 47 days in an inflatable raft before being captured by the Japanese. Although he is treated well at the first place he is taken, given food, tea and medical care, it isn't long before he is sent off to a POW camp, where he is tortured and brutalized. He spends more than two years in a series of camps, each worse than the last, only released by the ending of the war.

The details of the story are excellent. I liked, too, that Hillenbrand continues the story into his post-war life. She also does a great job of maintaining a neutral tone in describing the atrocities. I believe that is the only way to get through such a story, though the necessary distance it creates can be detrimental to the reader's involvement. Zamperini remained a mystery to me, much as I admired his creative resourcefulness both on the raft and in the camps.

I mistrust stories that have been told and retold hundreds of times, polished and rehearsed. After the war Zamperini spent many years as an inspirational speaker, telling this story. Such repetition perhaps adds to the distance and lack of emotion in this narrative. It's clear, though, that Hillenbrand has done a great deal of research, noting where her research supports and occasionally contradicts the established story. I like the way she uses this research to provide context even for the most abusive guards.

I also mistrust tales that set off my propaganda detector. This is a U.S.-centric story. U.S. equals good; Japan equals evil. Always. Even the Hiroshima bombing is only told from the point of view of the U.S. pilots who worry that they won't get away fast enough. Don't get me wrong: the Japanese behaved horribly during World War II. I know about Nanking. I know they used POWs as slave labor, tortured them, and subjected them to medical experiments. But other countries, including the U.S., behave horribly too. Why reawaken the anti-Japanese hysteria that I saw in my parents and others who lived through that war? Hillenbrand could at least have noted that after the war Japan went to great lengths to change their culture so that such atrocities would not happen again. If only the U.S. would do the same.

Others in my book club pointed out that to add that kind of nuance and give any of the Japanese point of view would make it a very different story, not the kind of feel-good story that the author meant to write. Any softening of the view of the enemy would take away from the glory of this man's amazing survival.

Zamperini's story is meant to be an uplifting tale about the strength of the human spirit. I confess it did not inspire or uplift me. I came away depressed—again—at the depths of cruelty and sadism people can sink to. Such behavior comes from the same self-centered view that I see in our public discourse today, where it is okay, even applauded, for people who are not rich to die for lack of medical care. The solution Hillenbrand offers in this story seems to me inadequate.

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