Rated Best Book of 2011 by BookBrowse Members
When a book generates as much pre-publication buzz as Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken, I tend to be a bit prejudiced against it from the start. I've found that rarely do books live up to the expectations I've developed for them based on the press they've generated. I was delighted to find, though, that Unbroken not only lives up to its hype, but far surpasses it. I can honestly say that I can't remember the last time a non-fiction book held my attention as well as this one did, from start to finish. It's the first book I've read in a very long time that I've wanted to force on all my friends. Yes, it's that good.
Unbroken is a biography of Louis Zamperini, son of Italian immigrants, born January 26, 1917 in New York. Although the book's jacket focuses on Zamperini's unbelievable adventure in a tiny life raft floating thousands of miles from anything, that journey is just a small part of this man's remarkable life. Hillenbrand chronicles his incredible transformation from petty criminal to Olympic track star, a compelling story in its own right. Before we get to the crash landing in the ocean, we are treated to high-tension, nail-biting narrative about the hero's experiences as a combat bombardier. The largest, and perhaps the most astonishing, section of the book deals with Zamperini's years as a Japanese POW, and in reading these pages I found myself constantly wondering how anyone could have survived the things he did. But the story doesn't end with the captive's release; Hillenbrand continues to follow Zamperini through the years after the war, vividly portraying his battles with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcoholism as well as his eventual conversion to Christianity at a Billy Graham tent revival. As I completed each engrossing chapter of this man's life, I expected that the next would be a let down from the section that preceded it; but this was never the case, the book's pace never flagged, and each section was equally riveting.
Zamperini's story is an affecting one from start to finish, and a book based on his life could easily have devolved into a tear-jerker. Hillenbrand minimizes the emotional content, however, instead relaying events with journalistic dispassion but without creating an overly cold or sterile narrative no mean feat. Her impeccable research is also evident. She includes enough facts and figures to keep any statistician happy, but incorporates them seamlessly so that the narrative never lags.
Unbroken's subtitle is "A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption," but the book's emphasis is clearly on the word "survival." Much of the saga takes place in Japanese prison camps, and the torments Hillenbrand relates are horrific. Although her descriptions of torture aren't extremely graphic, there are many parts of the book that those of a sensitive nature may find disturbing. The author does drift toward the promised "redemption" in the final pages, but those looking for an inspirational book (from a religious point of view) won't find it here, in spite of the fact that Zamperini became a Christian inspirational speaker after the war. The flip side, of course, is that anyone avoiding the book out of fear that it will be too evangelical will be pleasantly surprised by its lack of religious content.
I can't say that Unbroken reads like a novel, but I have no doubt that it will appeal to fiction and non-fiction readers alike. Its fast pace and enthralling subject will almost certainly put it at the top of many must-read lists, and its many themes make it an excellent choice for group discussion. I can't recommend this one highly enough.
If you'd like to know more about Louis Zamperini you might wish to view this documentary which appears to be compiled in part from a 1954 episode of This is Your Life together with more recent footage; but if you'd prefer not to know too much about his life before reading Unbroken, I suggest you limit yourself to just the first seven to eight minutes, which provides a good picture of Louis Zamperini as a young man without revealing his war and post war experiences.
You could also check out Devil at My Heels - Zamperini's autobiography, first published in 1956 and reissued in 2011. Those who have read both say that the books cover much the same ground in terms of Zamperini's wartime experiences, although Unbroken is arguably the better written, but that the earlier bio covers Zamperini's experiences as a born-again Christian and follower of Billy Graham in much more detail.
If you'd prefer a smaller taste of Zamperini's life without the risk of spoiling the story, here is Unbroken's book trailer...
This review is from the January 13, 2011 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.
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