940.547252092, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (2010).
I was fascinated by World War II when I was younger. I remember, very clearly, reading Silence on Monte Sole when I was in high school, probably for a history class. It’s a crushing book. The author, Jack Olsen, writes about the German massacre of 1,800 Italian villagers in the waning days of the war, as the German army was withdrawing from Italy. I also remember, so many years later, reading John Hersey’s classic Hiroshima with its awful photos. Both books told of horrific events and the almost unimaginable cruelties of war; they were mesmerizing and moving and unforgettable, because they told human stories, of parents and children and of watches that fused at 8:15. They humanized the most de-humanizing events, and made my heart ache.
Unbroken, sadly, does not fall in this category. To be fair, I’m older now, more critical and more guarded than when I was 15; I’m less likely to be moved in the same way. Unbroken seems, on the face of it, to have a completely compelling story: an Olympic runner, Louis Zamperini, joins the Army Air Forces, is shot down over the Pacific and drifts on a life raft for 48 days before being brutally mistreated as a Japanese prisoner of war for more than two years. It reads like a story out of Hollywood, an out-of-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire string of bad luck and cruelty and torture. Even as it focuses on this particular man, this Olympian and war hero and Good Man, the book has a curiously detached and general feel to it. We are told that war is terrible, that psychological torment is as damaging as physical abuse, that the mind must overcome horror if men are to endure. We are told, again and again, that Zamperini has been pushed to his limits but remains unbroken. Unfortunately, showing is more effective than telling. I, for one, remained largely unmoved.