I’ve been ruminating on this one for a while. It’s one of those books that really sticks with you. So much happens through the course of the story as author Laura Hillenbrand exquisitely describes the life of Olympian Louis Zamperini. You see, to live the life an Olympian is to live remarkably, but in the story of Zamperini, his tenure as an Olympian was not the most defining measure of his strength. Nor was his time spent fighting enemy aircraft during World War II, nor the 47 days he spent stranded aboard a raft in shark-infested waters after his plane went down in the Pacific. It was, it turns out, his experience in a Japanese prisoner of war camp that truly tested his might, and the life he lived as a result of that experience.
I read a lot of World War II era fiction. My paternal grandfather was an officer in the war who fought on the beaches of Normandy and was stationed on the Eiffle Tower during blackouts with a spotlight with the order to search out and shoot down enemy planes. I have sought to understand the decisions he was forced to make far before either myself — or my father, his son — were born. I also believe that in order to see our way through culture clashes, through war and through turmoil, we must study history. We must build upon the lessons learned. I believe that historical fiction and nonfiction can be used as a tool to paint a picture of the past, to inform readers of how conflicts can be resolved, and why they in fact must be resolved. This is one such story.
Based on the true life of Louis Zamperini, Laura Hillenbrand has woven an intricately rich tapestry of historical facts mixed with insights gleaned in the time hence. She carefully composes characters based on real people and provides further depth to their experiences, their emotions, their desires. The book is equally informative, educational and entertaining. And because I was experiencing the story via the audiobook version, I found myself starting whole chapters over in order to listen more actively, or pausing to search for further context. Hillenbrand’s writing — as well as her research — is that powerful, she inspired me to want to learn more so that I could paint an ever more vivid picture in my mind. I read in-depth reviews from the New York Times, as well as a poignant and personal portrait of the author herself and of her unique research and writing processes, also published in the New York Times.
And what I learned is that in addition to the remarkable quality of the story is how the story was developed. Due to chronic fatigue and vertigo, Hillenbrand has developed research methods that work to her advantage — purchasing era newspapers off the Internet, interviewing Zamperini himself via phone from across the country. Her slower process has allowed her to truly delve in to historical documentation in order to develop the book in such a deeply moving story arc, which is a true feat. And to discover that she too wrote Unbroken — and earlier, Seabiscut — in order to better understand her World War II veteran father, makes it all the more meaningful. While I would certainly recommend the print version of the book, I found it interesting to know that due to her vertigo, Hillenbrand herself often uses audiobooks while researching, which made experiencing her story via the audio version all the more appropriate.
Perhaps it was because of her personal connection to Zamperini, or her need to better understand her father’s experiences that inspired Hillenbrand to elegantly weave into the story golden, shining moments that remind the reader of the humanity of her subjects even in the midst of tragedy and trauma. For example, while starving aboard a raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, Zamperini brings comfort to the two other men in his company by vividly describing his mother’s home cooked meals. And even when one of the men puts all three in grave danger by eating their rationed food at once and thereby submitting them to starvation, Zamperini shows how deep his empathy runs by forgiving the man and protecting him from shark attacks. And while I know that some of you are likely to simply watch the film — yes there is in fact a film and yes, it was in fact directed by Angelina Jolie — please, PLEASE do not refrain from first reading the book.
Even as I write this review I know that I cannot give the book it’s due justice. Except to say this — I plan to read and re-read, to listen and re-listen to Hillenbrand’s book, to study it seriously, and not only for the historical or entertainment value it affords readers, but as someone who truly hopes to improve my writing as well. As an author Hillenbrand is, I would say, a syntax specialist of the highest order.
Learn more about Laura Hillenbrand via her author website LauraHillenbrandBooks.com.