Monday, October 3, 2011

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Book Club October 2011 Pick

Readers who expect a lot from a book won’t be disappointed by ‘Unbroken’. It successfully crosses multiple nonfiction genres – historical, survival, biographical, and inspirational. It’s a fitting tribute to its centerpiece, Louie Zamperini, a man whose experiences are so remarkable that he seems to have rolled many lifetimes into one. It would be no exaggeration to say that a similar tale of fiction would be dismissed as outrageous beyond belief.
Though the story revolves around Louie Zamperini, ‘Unbroken’ is equally a consideration of World War II, starting with the U.S.’s entry into the war with the bombing of Pearl Harbor; the war experiences of servicemen stationed in the Pacific to confront the threat from the East; a searing account of the horrendous treatment meted out to Allied soldiers in Japanese POW camps; and, finally, the long road to rehabilitation faced by these veterans. In the very first chapter, Hillenbrand gives us a bird’s eye view of historical perspective, effortlessly navigating us into the pregnant pause between the two great wars of the last century. Her terrifyingly vivid description of the bombing of Funafuti brings us a little too close to the war for comfort.
Good writers know that it’s easier to get their readers involved in the more abstract aspects of their book, if they give them a human interest angle. While Louie Zamperini’s life is so exceptional that not everyone might be able to identify with it, it’s impossible not to be moved by the man himself. The early portions of Zamperini’s life are entertaining. We get a glimpse of an incorrigibly ungovernable boy who could find no positive outlet for his excess energy till his elder brother cajoles and browbeats him into sports. Zamperini quickly excels at running, with a high school record that was unbeaten for many years. He goes on to become a part of the U.S. track team for the 1936 Berlin Olympics, “the youngest distance runner to ever make the team”. He acquits himself well, and returns home a national hero.
The sure path to athletic glory is interrupted when he enlists in the Army Air Corps in 1941, putting his dreams on hold, like so many other young men of his generation. Louie becomes a bombardier and sees action in the Pacific, before his plane with its crew crashes into the ocean in 1943. Surviving as a castaway for an astounding 47 days at sea in an appallingly ill-fitted raft, Zamperini’s luck takes a turn for the worse when the vessel finally washes up on a Japanese-occupied island. There begins the second part of his ordeal - trying to make it through conditions intended to shatter any normal human being, with a tormentor who seems to be hell on two legs.
As engrossing as this book was, I gradually became aware of a slight unease and was able to put a finger on it only a third of a way through the reading. Japan’s war-crimes have been documented beyond refute, and  Hillenbrand’s depiction of the Japanese people is, on the whole, even-handed; which is not to say the book is free of bias. While Hillenbrand gives us the truth, I suspect that it is not the whole, unalloyed truth. The author’s perspective is loyal to the American experience of the Second World War. Nowhere is there any allusion to an American serviceman being anything other than an officer and a gentleman. Hillenbrand does not depict any event that would tarnish the image of the people currently idealized as ‘the greatest generation’. If the more unsavory actions of American soldiers have been either omitted or glossed over, it’s perhaps because this book is a heart-felt valentine to veterans of WW II. Well, a nation must celebrate its heroes, but I was a little discomfited at the unsubtle nudging to offer a standing ovation.
Zamperini’s story does not end with the war. So rarely is violence ensued by true peace, and yet for Zamperini it did. The third act of his life is a post-lude of amazing grace.
Related Reading:
‘Strength in What Remains’ by Tracy Kidder
The insanity of war is intensified when it is not hostilities between opposing nations, but erstwhile friends and neighbors turning on each other. How do we stop the madness? Pulitzer-prize winning author, Tracy Kidder, offers if not solutions, at least hope in his recounting of Rwanda’s recent civil war.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Like ‘Unbroken’, Martel’s Booker-prize winning novel is also one of survival, faith, and the unquenchable human spirit. A word of caution, this book didn’t win the ‘Booker’ for nothing. It’s like deep-sea diving; the treasures are hidden, and a superficial read won’t be rewarding.

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