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Book Review: Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

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Unbroken, by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand, tells the unbelievable and unforgettable story of Louie Zamperini, a one-time world-class runner. As a World War II officer, he endured amazing hardships both during combat and after his plane crashed in the Pacific, yet he not only survived but eventually thrived.

Hailing from Torrance, California, Louie Zamperini was known as the Torrance Tornado because he ran so fast during his high school years. Zamperini set the interscholastic record for the mile in 1934 (a record that stood for years) and earned himself a scholarship to the University of Southern California. Those who followed his career thought he might be the first man to beat the four-minute mile mark. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic team in 1936 in the 5,000 meter distance after racing at the distance only four times. He did not win a medal in 1936, but he ran well and looked forward to 1940, when he planned to race the 1,500, the Olympic race closest to the mile in length.

His running plans had to be put on hold when World War II broke out and the 1940 summer games were cancelled. Louie became a bombardier on a B-24 bomber in the Pacific theater. He and his crew survived combat missions, including one that virtually destroyed his plane, only to crash at sea during a rescue mission. He and two other survivors drifted on their rafts for more than six weeks, slowly starving. The two who survived – Louie and his friend Russell Phillips, who was the pilot of the plane – were picked up by the Japanese and held as POWs.

Louie’s time as war prisoner of Japan was horrific; he was beaten, starved, and nearly died of dysentery. When he returned home after being liberated in August 1945, he went through some difficult years and found he could no longer compete in running due to injuries he had suffered. Yet he eventually found his way out of PTSD and suffering and is still alive and vital in his 90s.

If ever there was a page-turning biography, this is it. I just couldn’t put it down. When Louie lived through one calamity, another came along. I knew he must have survived, but often it made me wonder how, and how much he would have to endure. Louie proved indomitable, as is Laura Hillenbrand’s story telling (which The New York Times calls “muscular”). Putting Louie’s life and accomplishments in historical context, explaining the mechanics of bombers and Japanese culture with equal ease, Hillenbrand depicts Louie’s life in three dimensions. God is in the details, so the saying goes, and Hillenbrand provides them, making every part of Louie’s story stand out in vibrant colors.

Biography fans, World War II and running buffs, and anybody who loves a compelling story well-told will be interested in this book. It is well-deserving of its best-seller status.

Note: Laura Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome and has a remarkable story of her own. The Washington Post published a story in November 2010 about her illness and her writing of Unbroken.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.