February 18, 2013

Review: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was given this book as a Christmas gift; I probably wouldn't have picked it up otherwise. I read it because I had loved the book -- and the movie -- of Life of Pi and so I was predisposed to enjoying a tale of survival at sea.

The narrative voice is strange, though -- Hillenbrand relates almost the entire book without dialogue, which is oddly distancing, and it's possible to hear the occasional cadences of the reminiscences of old men talking about war experiences. The story also jumps awkwardly from the interesting main tale of rebellious almost-Olympian Louis Zamperini into the stories of other supporting servicemen, which I suspect was to honor them for adding their two cents to the historical detail, but it's jarring, and I resented their less-interesting inclusion.

Zamperini's story in Unbroken is divided into four parts: 1. his childhood and thwarted Olympic ambitions; 2. his entry into the Air Force, fighting the Japanese in WWII, surviving a plane crash and then a horribly long time adrift at sea in a crappy lifeboat surrounded by sharks; 3. his "rescue" by the Japanese and placement in various internment camps where he was abused for years; and 4. Louie's lousy attempt to reintegrate into American society, his Christian conversion, and happy long life.

The second part of the story, the deployment in bombers in the Pacific Theater of WWII and the story of survival at sea, is all fascinating. I've read and watched a lot of stories about the parts of WWII involving the Nazis, but it was surprising to realize how little I knew about the Japanese side of the equation. Perhaps because the USA is rather ashamed of the use of nuclear bombs, the Pacific battles aren't as heralded in our culture. I mean, I knew about Kamikazes and the nukes and somewhat about Iwo Jima and that was about it, so the intricate detailing of this section of Unbroken was highly informative. And I adore reading narratives about survival at sea, because they seem so useful, you know?

After Zamperini gets picked up by the Japanese and placed in horrible camps, the book becomes a lot less fun. Certainly I felt for the guy, but there's a lot of excrutiating detail about starvation; and physical, psychological, and emotional abuse; and illness; and filth; and overwork; and misery. While I was reading this section, I was convinced I had come down with dysentery. It's harsh and bleak and really quite a trudge. Of course it's better to be reading about the horror of Japanese prison camps in WWII than actually living through it, but man, it was rough to get through.

Even more tedious was Zamperini's return to America. It's really quite a bummer, as he fails at almost everything, including his marriage, and falls into alcoholism. When he returns to happiness through the ministry of Billy Graham, I almost quit reading. I realize that the guy's life was in the toilet, but the religious conversion seemed like such deep bullshit, it was embarrassing. But I can't deny that Zamperini sounded happy and active for the remainder of his long life.

So I guess I liked a quarter of the book, roughly, but even that was queered by the geriatric, removed voice. I was impressed by the level and quality of the research throughout, but much of the book is a dreary slog, topped by a deluded and almost offensive tract about the healing power of God.

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