HILLENBRAND, LAURA. Unbroken. New York: Random House, 2010. ISBN: 978-1-4000-6416-8. Pp. 473. $27.00.
Laura Hillenbrand, author of Seabiscuit, has written another book about an athlete, albeit a human one. Louie Zamperini was a world-famous miler who ran the 5,000m race at the 1936 Olympics. As an athlete he never reached his peak due to his experiences, related in almost excruciating detail in this book, as a B-24 bombardier and a POW in Japan. Reading Unbroken so soon after Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir Eat, Pray, Love comes as something of a shock. Do Americans want to read about a blond's blissful and successful search for inner peace and love? Or do we want a story filled with brutal beatings and dysentery? Honestly, I'd choose the latter because Hillenbrand's book is absolutely riveting, at least until the end of the war. Zamperini's alcoholism and discovery of Jesus I found less interesting, as, I think, will most readers.
The story Hillenbrand tells, while clearly well researched and almost unflaggingly interesting, has some weak points. Most noticeably, the author is not a very good writer. Having read excerpts of Zamperini's letters, I wouldn't say that he could have improved his own story by writing it, but Hillenbrand is less of an interpreter than an inscriber. It seems clear in the stilted writing that the author drew almost exclusively from letters, interviews, and notes. Not a trickle of imagination seeps through her writing.
There are, arguably, six stages of Zamperini's life that Hillenbrand relates here. The two weakest are the first and last, the first being an uninteresting description of the subject's childhood. I didn't know the Artful Dodger grew up to be an Olympic runner, but there you have it. Speed picks up (both figuratively and literally) when Louis takes up running in high school, coached by devoted older brother Pete. I have to admit the race scenes left my heart thumping, but part of this was residual feelings from my experiences as a cross country and track runner. Still, Hillenbrand's timing is masterful in these scenes, probably from her past experiences writing about horse racing. Oddly enough, the least interesting race is the 5,000m that Zamperini ran in Berlin. He had gained twelve pounds during the nine-day cruise across the Atlantic with the other Olympic contestants, and ran a fairly sluggish race, save for the last lap, which he ran in a mind-blowing 56 seconds. When he met Hitler, the man said, "Ah, you're the boy with the fast finish." Being only nineteen at the time, Zamperini was expected to have a brilliant running career ahead of him.
Instead, there was World War II for which Zamperini became a bombardier stationed in Hawaii, where he had a brilliant, if brief, career. Cruelly enough, this career ended not in battle, but during a search expedition for another downed plane. He and a number of men were coerced into taking an almost unflyable B-24, the Green Hornet, which crashed in the Pacific, and killed all but three of the men on board. Of the three who survived the crash, two would live to fall into the hands of the Japanese. Before meeting up with the Japanese, they had floated 2,000 miles over the course of 47 days.
A large portion of the book is about Zamperini's experiences in a number of POW camps over the course of two and a half years. Though I found it perversely absorbing, the number of beatings and bouts of dysentery that Hillenbrand relays gets awfully repetitive after a hundred or so pages. What's more, the majority of this section is recounted in anecdotal sketches, many of which start with the word "Once," or "One time," and many of which don't lead anywhere. Hillenbrand's interest in her subjects noticeably flags, and the focus moves more towards Mutsuhiro Watanabe, "the Bird," a corporal at two of the POW camps in which Zamperini was taken, who took a special interest in beating and bullying him. After the war ended, this man seems to be the exclusive cause of Zamperini's post-traumatic street disorder and Hillenbrand takes a special interest in describing the "sexual rapture" the Bird seemed to exude after beating a man half to death.
What I found most troubling about this book, is the ending, which swiftly describes the rest of Zamperini's life until the present day (the man is still alive at the age of 93). Hillenbrand manages to portray Zamperini's adult life and old age as a mediocrity (the man was a motivational speaker and opened a camp for troubled boys), leaving the book with a vaguely unsettling message.