A review of Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Between books, movies, and TV shows, we’re so obsessed with fiction we think that when a real life story is so fantastic it clearly must be made up. But what if the reason we have a natural inclination to grasp fiction is because we were meant to live amazing stories?

If there’s anyone who’s lived a life that can legitimately be described as remarkable- it’s Louis Zamperini.

His life story would’ve already been a thrill to tell by his early 20s. He had participated in the Berlin Olympics and had set all kinds of records with his mile times. When it came to running, this guy knew how to compete, and he was taking down competition that should’ve been way out of his league.

Then the war started and he enlisted. First there was the time when he survived enemy fire. He and the rest of the crew survived to discover hundreds of bullet holes all over the plane.

Then his plane went down over the Pacific Ocean, leaving him and two others on rafts with nothing to eat or drink for over a month, in shark infested waters.

Finally he gets rescued. By a ship. Unfortunately it happens to be a Japanese vessel and he is taken as a prisoner of war for years. He is held in a Japanese camp by one particular guard who holds an unexplained personal vendetta against him. A man so violent that he had to be psychopathic on some level. A pure sadist.

There is a lot of pain in his story. Physical pain, no doubt, but psychological pain to top it. Not only did he deal with his torturer day after day, but the man tormented him in his dreams as he dealt with the traumatizing experience.

I normally don’t tell that much of a synopsis when reviewing something, but hearing all that is what made me want to read Unbroken so hopefully it has a similar effect on you.

First and foremost, Zamperini’s life bears all the markings of an incredible story. Overcoming obstacles. The great growth of a character. Personal struggles but holding on to hope. And the moments of redemption we all long for in a solid story.

It’s the kind of story that’s so incredible that it almost seems like it should be fiction. But Hillenbrand so thoroughly researches every detail of the story that factualness was preserved as well as it possibly could’ve been. The photos throughout add elements of eerie life to the story and her attention to detail give Zamperini’s story the kind of respect it demands. For the record, Hillenbrand is probably best known for writing Seabiscuit, another biography of sortsClearly she has a thing for fast runners.

What is incredible about Unbroken is that there are so many angles with which I could begin to discuss such prominent moments in Zamperini’s story. One could read the terrible accounts of torture and just question what would drive human beings to do such things to others, and if we’re all human, then don’t we all have that within us to some extent? One could read about humanity, and how Louie hung on to his humanity while his torturers had lost theirs in efforts to dehumanize others.

There’s stories of resilience for sure. How much did a hopeful spirit do for Louie on the raft? Odds are, by reading the story, it probably saved his life and kept him alive long enough to make it on to the ship. What does it take to go through countless days in a POW camp? Just blind hope that one day would be the final day. Then there’s the last few chapters, really powerful stuff about freedom. Not just from POW prisons, but from the prisons we put ourselves in until we forgive. Forgiveness takes this story to the next level.

Honestly, I will probably be referring to this book a lot. In conversation. In writing. It had that much substance to it. It’s my hope that everyone sees this as a must-read, because I think it is. Even to my friends who aren’t big readers, I’ve been pitching this book. Large as it is, it took me four days to fly through it. That stuff happens when you’ve got a good and powerful story.

Philippe Lazaro2011