Saturday, March 9, 2013

Unbelieveably True

So, if you were a publisher, and someone pitched you a novel about a boy who was smoking cigarettes at age 5, competing as an Olympic runner at 20, a World War II war hero before he was 30, and a downhill skier in his 90s, how fast would that manuscript hit your circular file?  My guess is immediately.  It just isn't believable.  But, in this case, it's true. 

Unbroken:  A World War II Story of  Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand is the biography of Louis Zamperini.  And yes, Louie did all of those things, and many, many more.  Louie first became famous when he was a part of the US Olympic team that went to Berlin in 1936.  Another member of that team who Louie befriended was Jesse Owens.  Although Louie didn't medal, he set a new American record. 

When World War II started, Louie considered himself lucky to get stationed in Hawaii.  He was a member of a B-24 flight crew that quickly gained recognition of one of the best crews in the air.    Since this is on the book's cover, I'm not spoiling anything by telling you that Louie's plane went down, and he and other members of the crew found themselves floating in the Pacific Ocean, battling sharks, starvation and enemy fighter planes.  What happens after that is just as unbelievable and amazing as Louie's life up to that point.

While I've read a lot about World War II, almost all of my reading has focused on the European part of the war or the Holocaust.  Only Bridge of Scarlet Leaves by Kristina McMorris addressed the Japanese.  When I read Scarlet Leaves, I thought that McMorris may have been mentioning some of the worst things that were supposed to have happened to prisoners in Japan.  Hillenbrand reported many more atrocities, and has the documentation to support her claims, giving credibility to her story and McMorris'.  In fact, McMorris sites Louie's autobiography as one of her sources.

There was so much that I learned about World War II that I somehow never knew before.  I never knew why Japan attacked Hawaii, seemingly out of the blue.  Hillenbrand explains that on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Japanese also attacked other countries all throughout the Pacific, in an attempt to gain control of the Pacific, and if that went well, all of Asia.  I had no idea that 37% of American prisoners of war who were held in Japan died in captivity, compared to only 1% of those held in Germany.  And I was shocked to learn that the Japanese charged with war crimes were granted amnesty and released from prison less than 10 years after being sentenced, as part of an American political plan to make an ally of Japan.

This was the best biography that I have ever read.  Part of what made it so good was that all of the information is so detailed.  I've always heard that people who survive a war hate to talk about it, but in Louie's case, because he was famous going into the war, he was giving interviews before he even returned to the US.  Hillenbrand spent 7 years researching the book, and interviewed Louie 75 times.  Although there are footnotes throughout the paper version of the book, as an audio book listener, I appreciated not having those read to me.  For the most part, the footnotes are documenting sources, and not providing additional information, so I don't feel like I missed anything by not hearing them.  A good reason to read the book instead of listening, however, is that Hillenbrand includes tons of pictures in the paper version. 

If you have any interest at all in World War II, Unbroken is a Must Read.

One more down for the Off the Shelf Challenge!

Next up on CD:  This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

Still Reading:  The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

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