I just finished — seriously, 15 minutes ago — one of the best books I have read in a long time. And I know it’s only February so this might be a moot point, but easily the best books I have read yet in 2013.
This book was recommended to me many times, especially when I asked friends for nonfiction suggestions for my New Year’s Reading Resolution. I know that it was a NYT bestseller and Time magazine’s Best Book of 2010, but for some reason, I just couldn’t quite believe the hype.
And the thing is, of all people, I should have some personal interest in a biography about a U.S. Army bombardier who, by an unfortunate twist of fate, becomes a Japanese POW during WWII. I lived in Iwakuni, Japan when I was in first grade, as my dad served in the Marine Corps (he still works with the Department of Defense and travels there often). My paternal grandfather served in the Pacific Campaign of WII, and later in the Korean War, with the U.S. Navy. I studied the story of Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes when I lived in Iwakuni, and even helped fold paper cranes to mail to her memorial statue in Hiroshima as a peace offering. So. What. Was. Wrong. With. Me?!?! WHY DIDN’T I WANT TO READ THIS BOOK?
I’m only sorry I did not read this book sooner. Yes, it is a military history book in the sense that there is a lot of information about the planes (B-29s) and military tactics of WWII. But it is SO. MUCH. MORE. Specifically, it is the detailed life story of this man, Louis Zamperini:
If I were to summarize this man’s incredible story to you, it would sound like a cross between Forrest Gump and The Life of Pi. Only, guys. It really happened! Louis — or Louie, as he is more often called — not only endures his plane crashing into the Pacific Ocean, surviving for more than a month on a raft smaller than a bathtub with two crew mates (oh, by the way, fending off man-eating sharks along the way), but THEN has his raft shot down by a Japanese bomber. Then endures two years as a POW in Japan, where he is starved, beaten, and tortured to the brink of death. Not to spoil anything for you, but, um, history: the Allies win, and Louie makes it back to the States, where he must face the personal demons of PTSD, alcoholism, and depression and a plaguing hatred for the Japanese.
As the title of the book, Unbroken, might give away, Louie is a victor in all battles.
Did I mention that in his pre-Army days, Louie broke all kinds of running records, nearly achieved the four-minute mile and competed in the 1936 Berlin Olympics (where Hitler personally congratulated him on his athletic finesse)? Did you know he’s still alive and well today, in his 90s? That you might have seen him in, oh, five Olympic opening ceremonies in the past as he carried the famed torch?
I didn’t, but I’m so glad to know Louie now. What an incredible story about the importance of human dignity and perseverance. I was expecting an exhilarating, harrowing survival story, but what I learned is that it takes so much more than food, water, and shelter to remain truly alive.
This quote from the book really resonated with me: “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”
It was so interesting to read about the little ways the POWs kept their sanity and dignity, even by doing little things like stealing pencil boxes or teaching the dumber, unknowing Japanese guards vulgar English. This book also illustrated how sometimes the existence of hope can truly mean the difference between life and death.
To be honest, some parts of the book were very emotionally challenging to get through. In American public schools, much of what happened to the Allied soldiers in Japan and the atrocities commited by the Japanese military and government are not openly talked about, at least in substantial detail. You’d be hard pressed to find a U.S. teenager who could correctly explain the Rape of Nanking as opposed to, say, Auschwitz. I have read numerous fictional and nonfictional works depicting life under the Nazis’ control of Germany and the horrors of concentration camps, but I had no idea just how nightmarishly the Japanese military treated their POWs.
For example, at one point Louie injures his ankle and can no longer contribute to the hard physical labor the POWs endure in coal mines and the like, so “the Bird,” a sadistic camp leader, forces him to tend to a camp pig, forcing him to clean the stall with his bare hands or else endure a brutal beating. Louie is so malnourished he resorts to stealing handfuls of slop from the swine’s trough for extra sustenance. This is just one example of the abuse he endures.
Needless to say, it is hard not to become quite emotionally attached to the book’s heroes. After seeing men at their weakest and most vulnerable, you can’t help but feel you know them most intimately. I cried at several points in the book, like when an American pilot signals to the POWs that the war is finally over and they are free. Oh, and at the above passage. After witnessing so much suffering, it was hard not to share in the soldiers’ elation and joy, too.
I recommend this book to, well, everyone, but especially Americans. Why do we not read these kinds of things in schools?!? It’s hard to read something like this and not care deeply about our country’s history, about the sacrifices of our military and the hardships on the homefront of decades past. What’s even more mind-boggling to me is that this book focuses mainly on ONE man’s story. Just one. One man out of so many who served their countries during the war. It’s hard to grasp the untold stories that were lost forever in men’s unmarked graves.
Also, big, huge props to writer Laura Hillenbrand for tackling this epic of tale. She spent more than seven years on this project, interviewing Louie more than 70 times (in addition to countless other witnesses and sources), and poring over Louie’s pack-rat scrapbooks, one of which weighed more than a whopping 60 pounds. It is quite a feat to compile so much research, so much information, so much history, into one book and make it so readable, so human…and so addicting. It was hard to put this down at the end of my bus rides or lunch hour. Let’s say I pushed back my bedtime a few times to finish this read. (At one point, I was racing through, thinking “OK, they’ve got to drop the atomic bombs on Japan soon! And then the war will almost be over.”)
Inspiring, phenomenal, amazing. All the cliches apply here, and rightfully so. Do yourself a favor, and read Unbroken. I swear it’s not the military brat in me speaking.