If you read a novel that mimicked the life of Louis Zamperini, the subject of Laura Hillenbrand's riveting bestseller Unbroken, you'd think the story was too incredible to be true. But Unbroken (subtitled A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption) is real - terrifying, inspirational and absolutely unforgettable. It's the sort of book that changes the way you think about the human spirit.
As narrated by the excellent Edward Herrmann - yes, I still think of him as the Head Vampire from The Lost Boys; it's not just you - the audiobook proves a perfect method to dive into the story of Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent from Torrance, California, who became an Olympic runner (he competed in the 1936 Olympics at 19 and was a favorite to break the four-minute mile) until World War II intervened.
Louie (that's him in his USC track gear over there on the left) joined up, ended up in the Army Air Corps and became a bombadier on a B-24 stationed in Hawaii. On a rescue mission, his plane went down into the Pacific in May of 1943; Louie survived - and continued to survive floating at sea for weeks with no provisions and through his time in several Japanese POW camps under conditions so horrific they defy the imagination. Let's put it this way: Given the choice, I'd take my chances on the raft, where Louie and two fellow survivors had to eat raw albatross and repel aggressive sharks by hitting them with the oars rather than go within 2,000 miles of a Japanese "punishment" camp.
Hillenbrand learned about Louie while researching the bestselling Seabiscuit, and she brings a compelling urgency to a story that's already deeply unnerving. Just surviving flight in a B-24 in the Pacific theater was miraculous enough; Hillenbrand offers chilling stats on how many planes went down in accidents and made me damned glad my own dad, who also flew in B-24s, was stationed in Europe during the war, where at least you had a fighting chance if your plane crashed (his plane didn't, or you might not be reading this blog post.
I am not a particular fan of war stories, but I will think about Unbroken for a good long while. It's the perfect sort of book to read whenever you feel that fate has dealt you a bad hand. It dealt Louie a bad hand, too, and he survived years of starvation, fear and violence. So stop your whining, and read this book.