Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
When Louie and the pilot, Phil (the third man died), are fished out of their raft it is by a Japanese enemy ship who sends them as prisoners of war (POWs) to the notorious Omori and Naoetsu camps. There Louie is tortured by Mutsuhiro Watanabe who took sadistic pleasure in endlessly tormenting prisoners and who said in an interview that Louie was number one on his list. Louie's thieving and fighting skills he learned as a youth helped him survive the starvation and violence of the camps. When the war ended, Louie got married but suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome and becoming obsessed with vengeance against Watanabe. Louie found peace with the help of his wife to live a full life filled with joy and courage. This inspirational story about one man's fight to overcome extreme suffering is one heckuva page-turner.
While in the raft adrift, Laura Hillenbrand cleverly shows the men discussing Louie killing an albatross like in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ballad, "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," although the reader has to be familiar with the poem to understand the imagery. The poem is about a sailor who killed an albatross in bad faith and was cursed to wear it around his neck as a result of his actions. The mariner's crew died from his actions and his guilt takes a toll on him psychologically. He roams the earth telling others about what he has done as penance and becomes wiser from the ordeal. Some have compared it to a salvation story. When Louie kills the albatross on the raft for food it foreshadows his horrible experiences as a POW in Japan. It also shows his guilt of surviving the plane crash while the rest of the crew died. As a POW, Louie will be psychologically stripped of his humanity as well as physically abused. Eventually, he learns to find salvation or peace in religion and telling his story as a speaker after the war.
The author mixes nonfiction facts while creating characters' personalities. Louie is larger than life. His flaws are not the focus and even felt rushed at the end when the author talks about his drinking and marital problems. The focus is on Louie's strengths and fortitude so it makes sense that the author would gloss over this part to some extent. The overarching message is to inspire and show that anyone can overcome struggles and suffering in life no matter what the person is facing. Some might not like the interspersing of facts and want more emotion, but I found the facts fascinating and the data showing how much the odds were against Louie. He had one unbelievable incident after another. Statistically speaking, he should have died many times over but didn't. Whether that is due to God or luck it is up to the reader to decide.
The facts also helped me remove myself from the violence. The psychological toll of being abused at the POW camp was brutal and I sometimes resent books where I feel that my emotions are being manipulated. I have friends who love to read books and cry. They want that. I don't. Depending on your tastes, you might find the facts dry. I also admire Hillenbrand's verb choices. She's a terrific writer and good at description and details. She is also one who understands suffering. She has Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Vertigo that is so severe that she once spent two years unable to leave her house because she was so sick. It is easy to see why she was drawn to Louie's story. Louie is 96 and still alive. He was still running at age 81. Truly an inspiration.