“So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.” -J.R.R. Tolkien
Every once in a while, a book comes around that has it all ― adventure, romance, high suspense, life-and-death struggles, villains, heroes, redemption and panoramic scope. Unbroken, the 2010 bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, satisfies on all counts. It is at once a great feat of writing, a monumental story and a call to the transcendent.
Best of all, it’s a true story. I had the pleasure of reading it along with several other members of the Minstrels of Portland Book Club. It was as fine a book as I could have wished for to start off the fellowship.
The book is based on the life of Louie Zamperini, whose story was incredible even before he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force) following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After completing stateside training and one hair-raising air mission, the 26-year-old son of Italian immigrants went down in the Pacific Ocean along with his comrades during a rescue operation. Two of them survived, floating some 2,000 miles on a decaying life raft over a period of 47 days before being captured by Japanese forces and tortured in POW camps for more than two years.
If it were possible, the story gets even better following their liberation in September of 1945. The real redemption was to come later for Zamperini, who discovered that he had escaped the confines of the POW camp only to continue on in bondage to fear and rage following his return to his native Los Angeles. The incessant turmoil drives Zamperini to alcoholism and threatens to destroy his marriage and career. However, fate strikes at a Billy Graham crusade four years after the war. During the altar call, Zamperini remembers a promise he made to God while he was adrift on the Pacific beating off sharks with oars: “If you will save me, I will serve you forever.” He gives his life to Christ ― a pivotal event that frees him from the grip of postwar nightmares, heals his marriage and moves him to travel overseas again to extend forgiveness to the men who abused him.
Hillenbrand’s prose explodes with passion and sparkles with vivid language. The level of detail and the author’s vibrant narrative belies the woman’s real life experience. Hillenbrand, 48, has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome since the age of 19 and spends most of her days confined at home, devouring life vicariously, working around her illness:
What’s startling to consider is that Hillenbrand has done this with little access to the outside world. She is cut off not only from basic tools of reporting, like going places and seeing things, but also from all the promotional machinery of modern book selling. Because of the illness, she is forced to remain as secluded from the public as the great hermetic novelists. She cannot attend literary festivals, deliver bookstore readings or give library talks and signings. Even the physical act of writing can occasionally stymie her, as the room spins and her brain swims to find words in a cognitive haze.
The author has written two bestsellers. Her first was Seabiscuit, which was also made into an academy-award-nominated film.
Hillenbrand had an uphill battle convincing Zamperini to devote himself to the project. He had already nearly completed his memoirs and recalled that the author told him, “I must do it.” Zamperini replied, “I’ve milked this thing dry. There’s nothing left.” But she insisted, “I must.”
Hillenbrand purchased newspapers from the 1930s, scanned POW lists and even contacted war paraphernalia enthusiasts, persuading the owner of a Norden bombsight to bring the contraption to her house and set it up on her kitchen table so she could understand how soldiers accurately dropped bombs during World War II. As Zamperini enthused in one interview, “she found so many things” ― prison diaries he hadn’t known his fellow inmates were keeping, for example, and the fate of the boat that rescued him after his plane crash. “I have to call her and ask her what happened to me in certain prison camps.” Hillenbrand and Zamperini spent hundreds of hours over the phone getting the details down.
After seven years of research, during which the two developed a long-distance friendship, Zamperini discovered the medical reason why Hillenbrand could never meet him to do interviews in person. As Hillenbrand recounts, she received a package from him out of the blue containing one of his Purple Heart medals. He had included a note with the package: “After reading your story, I realized you need this more than I do.”
The two finally met in person following the publication of the book, sometime after Hillenbrand got what was likely the most important feedback she could get about the finished product: “I remember he left this long message, and he said, ‘Laura you put me through it.’ But he really, really loved it.”
Zamperini’s encounter with Christ is a vivid example of the gospel’s transforming power. Evidently, in one fell swoop, he was freed from bondage to alcohol, night terrors and a seething rage, which, since the end of the war, had nurtured in him a ghastly plan to return to Japan and take revenge on Mutsuhiro Watanabe, the POW barracks commander who had made breaking Zamperini’s spirit a personal ― though ultimately unsuccessful ― mission. He went on to establish Victory Boys Camp, a “tonic” for troubled youths, starting with his own money and building it up over a period of two years “manning backhoes, upending boulders, and digging a swimming pool.” The boys who came to the camp “talked out their troubles” while they fished, hiked, rode horseback and rappelled down cliffs. The boys watched vocational films and spent nights around bonfires, many of them departing from their roguish ways never to return. Zamperini eventually recovered from all his war injuries and did many, many other things, such as skateboarding in his eighties (photo, right). He died in 2014 just before the theatrical release of Unbroken. He was 97.