Unbroken, Laura Hillenbrand’s soon-to-be-blockbuster follow-up to her 2001 blockbuster, Seabiscuit, is a one-in-a-billion story saddled with the most generic title possible. It’s the platonic ideal of blandly uplifting nonfiction nomenclature. It could be about anything: Lou Gehrig, Robert Downey Jr., Gandhi’s salt march, the first paleontologist ever to discover a dinosaur egg, or classical sculptures that are not the Venus de Milo. It could be a Christian children’s book about rainbows. Even Seabiscuit, in retrospect, could have been called Unbroken. And the book’s subtitle, “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption,” hardly helps, given that it describes 90 percent of the World War II stories ever written, at least from the “Greatest Generation” American perspective.
Once you hurdle that gooey mushball of a title, however, Unbroken turns out to be about one very specific man with an amazingly specific life story: Louis Zamperini, a track superstar from Southern California whose running career was cut short by a war experience that’s extreme even in the context of WWII.
Zamperini’s story seems designed to wrench from self-respecting critics all the blurby adjectives we normally try to avoid: It is amazing, unforgettable, gripping, harrowing, chilling, and inspiring. It sucked me in and swept me away. It kept me reading late into the night. I could not … (it really hurts me to type this) … put it … (must find the strength to resist) … down.
As a child, Zamperini was, as Hillenbrand puts it, “a one-boy insurgency.” He started smoking at 5 (“picking up discarded cigarette butts while walking to kindergarten”) and drinking at 8. As he aged, his infractions matured along with him. He let the air out of his teacher’s tires and threw rotten tomatoes at a policeman. He stole everything he could find: meals from people’s kitchens, beer kegs from parties, cakes from bakeries, coins from pay phones. Finally, at the urging of his track-star older brother, the teenage Zamperini learned to channel that destructive energy into running. Almost instantly, he became a legend, shattering the national high-school record for the mile and, at 19, becoming the youngest American distance runner ever to compete in the Olympics. Experts predicted that Zamperini might be the first man to break the mythical four-minute mile. Rival runners got so tired of hearing about his greatness that, at the 1938 NCAA championships, they attacked him mid-race, spiking his shins and cracking one of his ribs. Bloody and limping, he still managed to set a new college record for the mile (4:08:03).
Zamperini was all set to win gold at the 1940 Olympics, but the games were canceled because of the war. He ended up stationed in Hawaii, dropping bombs on some of the most high-profile targets in the Pacific Theater. Hillenbrand does a nice job sketching life as a WWII bombardier: the outrageous dangers of early aviation (for every plane downed in combat, six were lost in accidents), the quirks of the B-24 bomber (one pilot compared steering it to “sitting on the front porch and flying the house”). Her descriptions of Zamperini’s dogfights and crash landings could—and no doubt will—be plugged directly into the script of a big-budget summer film.
After several close calls, Zamperini and his crew finally run out of luck. They’re forced to fly, by a callous lieutenant, in a defective plane, and they end up crashing into the ocean—an airman’s worst nightmare. The chances of being saved back then were almost zero; rescue planes were less likely to find missing men than to crash themselves. Zamperini manages to scramble, with two other survivors, onto a couple of narrow rafts. Their only food is several Army-issued bars of bitter chocolate—until one of the castaways, panicking, eats them all on the very first night. This leaves the men stranded, injured, starving, and surrounded by sharks. And when I say “sharks,” I mean sharks: sharks and sharks and sharks and sharks and sharks. The sharks, in this book, do not ever stop coming. Mako sharks, reef sharks, six-foot sharks, twelve-foot sharks. They circle the rafts constantly, sliding under them, pressing their fins into the men’s backs, testing the strength of the rubber. They mysteriously disappear, only to launch leaping sneak attacks at the men’s heads when they peek into the water. A twenty-foot-long great white surfaces, slaps the raft with its tail a few times, and vanishes, leaving the men soaked and terrified. (A few times, I’ll admit, I wanted to ask a marine biologist if all this was plausible shark behavior.)
After 27 days, the men, skeletal and traumatized, manage to flag down a rescue plane—only to discover that it’s actually a Japanese bomber, which proceeds to try to kill them with its machine guns. This, of course, partially deflates their rafts, which the sharks see as an opportunity to fling their entire horrifying shark bodies out of the water onto the sagging vessels, gnashing their terrible shark jaws and flapping their diabolical shark tails. The men have to fight them off with oars while trying to patch and reinflate the raft.
See? It’s an incredible story. And that would have been plenty—it would have been amazing to stay unbroken just through all of that. But Unbroken keeps going. (For the record, I would have called the book The Distance, which resonates on several levels.) After 47 days, Zamperini’s raft miraculously drifts to land. But sharklessness, it turns out, brings its own special dangers, namely sadistic enemy soldiers. The men have landed on the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. And as a celebrity POW, Zamperini is a target for all kinds of extra misery.
Hillenbrand spent seven years working on Unbroken and interviewed Zamperini (now in his nineties) around 75 times. She builds her portrait, with loving patience, out of the tiniest details. (Somewhere in those endless weeks on the raft, she tells us, Zamperini discovered that he was strangely comforted by the smell of his own earwax.) Clearly, Hillenbrand has come to revere his courage and intelligence—and rightly so. Still, I found myself wondering, occasionally, if that devotion was an obstacle, if it led Hillenbrand to accept a version of Zamperini’s life that is slightly less complex than his actual life might have been. Can it really be true, for instance, that, back on the home front, Zamperini’s severe post-traumatic stress disorder vanished as soon as Billy Graham persuaded him to devote his life to God? That he never again woke up sweaty and screaming, or picked petty fights with strangers in bars, or threw himself to the floor because he’d heard a loud noise? It’s hard to imagine that the psychological fallout of his incredible ordeal would be so easily conquered. I’m convinced that he was unbroken, but surely something had to be a little shattered in the process.
By Laura Hillenbrand.
Random House. $27.