Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Book Club Meeting on April 28, 2011
In life, it can sometimes be said of certain people that unless they have bad luck, they have no luck at all. The main character in Lauren Hillibrand’s “Unbroken” had a string of bad luck that would have killed a weaker individual. Rising from relative poverty to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a runner, 19 year-old Louis Zamperini overcame reckless childhood behavior and learned to channel his boundless energy into pursuit of an Olympic medal. Like many other athletes, World War II intervened and derailed his plans. That is when the bad luck started. Louis’s plane was shot down over the Pacific Ocean, leaving him and two other men to drift on a raft for nearly seven weeks battling starvation, dehydration, and sharks with ingenuity and resolve. Unfortunately, rescue planes missed the men, they set a record for the longest time survived on a raft in the open ocean, and they landed on Japanese-held islands after being strafed by gunfire from a Japanese plane (which miraculously missed the men) although one companion succumbed mentally and physically before the landing and was buried at sea. Thus began Louis’s saga through various POW camps – more bad luck. Louis had a psychopathic Japanese officer who singled him out for physical, mental, and verbal abuse that almost ended in death. Somehow, against tremendous odds, Louis survived and returned to his family who had been notified of his supposed death.
Zion’s readers were given a history lesson through this book and a glimpse into the Japanese culture. Most of us were taken aback by the brutality of the Japanese to the POW inmates, not realizing how thoroughly the culture had ingrained a belief in Japanese superiority and the worthlessness of anyone else. The atrocities committed against the Chinese also stood out. Not only were prisoners tortured routinely but there was a plan for mass executions of all POWs in the event Japan lost the war. Fighting to the last man, woman, and child was such a strongly held belief that Zion readers viewed President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb in a whole new light. There were individual Japanese who did not agree with the treatment prisoners received, but they were severely limited in what they could do to help.
A few readers pondered whether cultural change has really occurred in Japan. Inscrutability and saving face remain highly prized, making it difficult for outsiders to get a good feel for the cultural ethos. One reader who did business in Japan for years pointed out that there is no word in Japanese for “no” and drew the parallel between the inability of the Japanese to take responsibility for their actions during World War II and the recent inability of any Japanese to step forward to acknowledge responsibility in the nuclear crisis precipitated by the earthquake and tsunami.
Other parallels can also be drawn. When Louis finally arrived back in the United States, he experienced great difficulty in adjusting. He and other returning POWS and soldiers had to deal with post-traumatic stress at a time when it was not officially recognized. Louis went off the deep end for a while, finding temporary escape from the prison of his memories in a bottle. He credits the Lord speaking through evangelist Billy Graham with drawing him back from the precipice. Seemingly overnight, he broke through his self-inflicted prison and let his natural optimism and energy guide him to sharing his story with others. Quite a few readers had relatives who fought in World War II who carried their scars for life, revealing them in small ways such as being unable to enjoy a Japanese restaurant or tolerate being around people of Japanese descent. A reader kindly shared the original telegrams his great-aunt had received from the War Department letting her know her only son had been wounded (he had died by the time she received this notice), then died, and finally that his body would be returned – four years after he died. In this age of instant communication, it is necessary to reflect on the marvels of change we enjoy both technologically in communication and navigation, but perhaps also on that old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. The description of soldiers pirating parts from one airplane to fix or improve another is just as accurate now in Afghanistan and Iraq as soldiers try to further protect their humvees and increase their personal protective equipment by any means.
That progress in some areas but the inability to solve our problems without resorting to war makes stories like Louis Zamperini’s necessary to remind us of the resilience of the human spirit and the emotional freedom found in forgiveness of wrongs. Lauren Hillenbrand is a gifted writer whose character development enhances the underlying story. As Louis continues to enjoy life at 94 years of age, he provides a wonderful example of how to embrace life fully. Zion’s readers unanimously gave this book thumbs-up!