This book was rough. I don’t mean to be glib — heaven knows that nobody wants to be the person that pokes fun at the biography of an Olympic runner, WWII pilot, POW, and humanitarian. Still, whether deliberately or not, Laura Hildebrand’s writing sometimes felt like as much of a drudgery as poor Louis Zamperini was going through. In part, I can’t blame her — when it comes to someone who went through the kind of horrors of Zamperini, it’s doubtful whether there’s an ability to really break thorugh, or touch new ground — and Unbroken doesn’t do that. It reads more like an extremely long news article than a living biography — Zamperini has no life tohim in this book, which is a true shame, based on the anecdotes provided by some of his family members.
He starts out a kind of juvenile delinquent, who eventually channels his energy and misconduct into running. He becomes a local hero, winning local races, high school tournaments, and eventually college races, before ultimately heading off to the Olympics. That, right there, is enough for most biographies. But Zamperini then joins the military, goes off to training and to Hawaii, and ends up on the doomed B-27 which eventually crashes into the ocean, leaving him and two other crewmmates stranded in the ocean. For weeks they drift at sea, before ultimately being “rescued” by the Japanese. They are soon put into prison camps (distinctly different from POW camps — think more HOlocaust type starvation, or Grecian/Spartan slave camps). Ultimately he suffers from what one assumes is PTSD and is certainly alcoholism, before ultimately triumphing at the end. That’s a lot of ground to cover, and at times, Hildebrand clearly struggles with the scope of her subject.
The other problem with the book is the lack of emotion, or introspection. Hildebrand interviewed Zamperini, multiple times. She had access to everything that anyone alive could have access to — and yet the story seems almost inhuman. Zamperini’s voice does not shine through, nor does his spirit. It’s hard to connect the dots between the juvenile delinquent at the beginning, the brave hero of the central section, and the damaged POW at the end. There’s simply no transition — no explanation of the changes he found within himself. Hildebrand aptly recounts his bodily failings, the injuries sustained, the clinical facts and circumstances — but in only one portion does fear shine through, in only one portion despair. The reader never feels like he is experiencing anything with Zamperini — it’s more of listeing to a story secondhand. The friend who recounts the funny even that she wasn’t present for, the newscaster trying to disseminate and cut down the elevan hour long, heated discussion on a Congressional floor.
This isn’t to say that “Unbroken” isn’t worth reading — it certainly is. To acknowledge and remember the suffering of others, to see our own responsibility and share in teh pain and burden, is always a valued thing. As a military member myself, paying homage to those who went before is incredibly important — as Americans, we owe it to our soldiers, sailors, and airmen to remember their sacrifices, and to take stock in what has been lost. Unbroken does a marvelous job of just that. Where it fails is the humanity, and the story-telling.