On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.
The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.
Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater.
Nonfiction isn’t really my thing. My Mom loves biographies and other works of nonfiction, but I’ve never really been all that interested, for one reason or another. Unbroken was the book that changed my mind.
For the past few months, I’d been looking for a five-star book (on Goodreads, books can be rated from one to five stars) and I hadn’t found it. Everything had been either two, three, or, at the best, four-star. Then one day I was chatting with Eowyn, and she mentioned that she’d watched the trailer for a movie called Unbroken, read the book, cried buckets over it, and I needed to read it ASAP. I didn’t know anything about the book besides the title, and when I found out it was nonfiction, it wasn’t at the top of my to-read list. Still, I put a hold on it at the library, and when it came in, my Mom read it first, to make sure I could. She loved it, and after putting it off for a couple of days while I finished up another book, I finally cracked the cover open and started reading.
‘Obsessed’ doesn’t even begin to describe how I felt about this book (and still do feel). From the very first page, I was sucked straight into the story (one I thing I like about Unbroken is that it isn’t written as some dry historical biography – every sentence, every word is full of life and colour) and read as much as possible every chance I got. Unbroken is a large book, but I finished it in two days. When I read the epilogue, I was crying so hard I could barely see the words. This book is joyful, intense, depressing, heartwrenching, inspiring…everything rolled into one. And I finally had a five-star book that made every other five-star book on my Goodreads’ shelves seem three-star by comparison. I don’t usually read a book that I can say “This is my favorite book of the year” without hesitation, but Unbroken was/is that for me.
There are so many things I could say about this book. The characters, for one. It is impossible to feel neutral toward any of these characters. Louis, of course, is the one your root for the most. I really, really don’t want to give anything away because reading spoilers for this book would be a tragedy. I’m serious. All you need to do is buy it, open to the first page, and start reading until you have to come up for air. But, suffice to say, things happen to him, changes both good and bad shape him, and, honestly, you couldn’t ask for a better hero.
Then, there’s Eowyn’s favorite character – Phil. Louis’ friend and the pilot of the plane that went down, leaving them floating in the ocean for forty-seven days before finally get picked up by the Japanese. Phil is probably my favorite character as well. He’s kind and weird and funny and awesome – all rolled into one. For instance, he always wore one pant leg slightly shorter than the other. DON’T ASK ME WHY. HE JUST DID. (Eowyn and I have laughed several times over that) One thing that really breaks me heart when it comes to Phil is that he felt so guilty over the plane crash and resolved never to fly again. (he eventually went on a plane, just once, when his daughter got into an accident…or something similar)
A multitude of other characters fill the pages of Unbroken. Pete, Louis’ brother, who’s another one of my favorite characters. Louise, their mom, who always believed that Louis was alive and would eventually come home. Mac, the one other man who survived the near fatal plane crash. (very mixed feelings about him – mainly because of The Chocolate Incident) Harris, Fitzgerald, Tinker, and a host of other POWs that Louis met as he was shuffled from prison camp to prison camp. And, of course, Mutsuhiro Watanabe – ‘the Bird’ – the man who was determined to break Louis’ spirit. (honestly, my opinion of him changed just as Louis’ opinion did – first, I was wondering exactly what the guy’s deal was, then I really started to hate him, and by the end I just felt sorry for him) And Cynthia, Louis’ wife. All in all, every single character is unforgettable in one way or another, and while some reviewers have complained about the large ‘cast’, I was never confused. They are all unique and vivid.
I cannot explain the level of emotion I had (and still have) invested in this book, this story. The only way you can understand is if you read it for yourself – something I highly recommend for everyone. There’s language sprinkled throughout the text, along with a lot of violence/descriptions of torture, so I’d recommend this book for ages fifteen or sixteen and up. But, honestly, the good far outweighs the bad. Unbroken is an amazingly moving, inspiring piece of nonfiction, a slice of WWII, and a fascinating story of one man’s journey from delinquent to athlete to pilot to prisoner and beyond. If I could recommend any book to you, it would be this one. Sure, it’ll rip your heart out and play games with your emotional state of well-being, but the experience is worth it. So worth it.
(I still don’t feel I’ve done justice to the book in this review, despite its length. I might do a follow-up review, talking about my favorite moments in the book, since I mainly just talked about my reaction/the characters. Let me know if any of you would be interested in that.)
(Oh, and go watch the trailer. It’s amazing.)