Unbroken is a rather epic books with several stages of struggle within it. The book opens with a wayward Louis, a troublemaker that many had written off. His brother channels Louis’ energy into sports and he becomes a breakout sports star, competing in one Olympics and training for the next.
The war intervenes and Louis’ wanders his way into the Air Force, becoming a bombardier. The Word War II Air Force is a dangerous place to be, with training and friendly fire just as dangerous as combat. Louis and his pilot, Phil (later Alan), seem to possess extraordinary luck and survive much longer than their colleagues.
Their luck takes a nasty turn when they are forced to fly a sub-standard plan and end up ditching in the Pacific. Three of the crew, Louis, Phil and one other, survive the crash and float in the Pacific for 7 weeks.
The time in the rafts is recounted in extreme detail. You live every moment of the struggle with these men, beating off sharks, drinking rainwater and eating anything they can. The third man dies (I’m not really spoiling anything here, as his death is foreshadowed with a heavy hand).
Just when you think they have finally found land the struggle is over, they are captured by the Japanese and shipped to POW camps where their struggle only increases. They are mistreated in various POW camps, half hoping for an American victory and half afraid of the rumored “kill all” order that the prisoners are to be killed before they can be retaken by US troops.
The US win the war and the POWs are re-patriated with varying success. Louis struggles with post-war life, suffering from what we would now call PTSD. Louis’ answer is to marry quickly and try to pretend the war didn’t happen. This strategy transitions into alcohol addiction and it seems that after all he’s survived, his story is still doomed.
Instead, Louis ends up at a Billy Graham revival meeting and turns his life around, forgiving his Japanese captors and living a long and happy life.
First, my thoughts on the book. Clearly, this is an interesting story, well worth the telling. In fact, it’s almost three books in one. Hillenbrand writes with drama. It’s fairly devastating when you think that the castaways have found land and it turns out to be a Japanese boat. I was tempted to put the book down, it was so discouraging. I’m glad I didn’t, as the section on POW camps was very interesting.
However, I have two issues with the book. The first is the level of detail when you start to wonder how anyone could remember all this material. Floating in the ocean for 7 weeks and nearly dying, and yet you remember details of what happened every day? Some of the accounts of situations in the POW camps appeared to be repeats of other stories. They could all be true, but I did start to wonder after a while.
Second, despite over 500 pages and so much detail of events, you finish the book still feeling like you don’t really know or understand Louis. He feels almost a caricature. The ending, in particular rings superficial. I have seen many people turn around their lives after finding God, but I’ve never seen their lives suddenly transform into a rose garden. Life still has struggles. It felt like the book was being tied up with a bow. Louis’ transformation was dramatic enough (forgiving your captors!), without airbrushing it.
After completing the book, I read a NYT review that indicated that it was quite likely that the author conducted her research with Louis over the phone (due to her illness) and never met him in person. This makes sense, given the superficial descriptions of his motivations and character.
Reading the section on the Japanese POW camps, I was reminded the period when I read Bonhoeffer’s Ethics and then went to the Imperial War Museum in London to see the exhibit on the Holocaust. I was stunned by the level of evil that exists in the world and began to understand the strong feeling of the people who lived through this period towards the Japanese. Just reading the book made me look at my Toyota Corolla with suspicion.
My concerns aside, this is really quite a good book, particularly for those of us who didn’t experience the war. You’re drawn in to Louis’ story and struggles. You see the war through the eyes of one man drawn into the center of it. Often we learn about the part of WWII that took place in Europe, but there’s a whole other story of the Pacific struggle.