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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

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Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
© Random House

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Random House, 2010

It is extremely rare that a straightforward biography comes along that possesses the characteristics of grand literature. Unbroken is literate, suspenseful, and plot rich with memorable characters in whose lives you become fully invested. There are clearly good guys and bad guys, even guys who epitomize evil incarnate.

It is an absolutely compelling story that draws the reader into its world dragging you along, some times kicking and screaming, railing against the inequities of the world, at other times tearfully appreciative of the unconquerable spirit of one man.

Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini. A small time juvenile delinquent in the late 1920s, he rose to become a track star at UCLA and a member of the 1936 Olympic team in Berlin where he met Adolph Hitler-and later climbed a flagpole to steal one of Hitler's personal flags. When World War II broke out this man, who could well have been the first to break the four-minute barrier in the mile, enlisted in the Army Air Force where he eventually became a bombardier on the new B-24 bombers. After surviving a harrowing training period - nearly as many men died learning to fly these unwieldy planes as they did in actual combat - he was finally shot down over the Pacific. Setting an unsought record for surviving in a raft at sea (47 days), he was captured by the Japanese and ultimately taken to one of their worst prison camps because he had refused to broadcast anti-American propaganda. Ironically, he had known one of the guards during his days at UCLA.

Hillenbrand's retelling of his survival, fall from grace, and hard-fought redemption and forgiveness of his former captors is the stuff of legend. Had this been a novel, the critics would have rightfully lambasted it as too fantastic, too far into the realm of science fiction. No one would have believed it. You will shudder as you read the details of the brutality these men endured. As a graduate of the U.S. Navy's SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) School, I have deep appreciation for and a very small sense of the trials Zamperini and his fellows endured.

Unbroken is an apt title. Zamperini and most of the men with whom he was imprisoned persevered in the face of incredible odds. United in hatred of their captors, they dreamed of wonderful meals they would have one day and of the time when they would be free and able to repay their sadistic guards for the cruelty they had meted out. Mutsuhiro Watanabe, "the Bird," was the most brutal and the perfect malevolent foil to Zamperini and his fellow aviators. Bird is a character who will stick in your mind long after you finish this amazing biography. Once released, however, nearly all of the men came to at least some grudging acceptance that the literal nightmare was over although that did not prevent the continuation of their nightly returns to the depths nor to the perils of what we later came to know as post traumatic stress syndrome.

Laura Hillenbrand is best known for her amazing biography of Seabiscuit, the great race horse. It is apropos that both Seabiscuit and Unbroken are stories of triumph against seemingly insurmountable odds and of main characters who exhibit powerful physical characteristics. Due to chronic fatigue syndrome, a debilitating medical condition, all of her research and writing is done from her home rather than in face-to-face meetings with her sources. Zamperini was so moved by her courage that he sent her one of his Purple Hearts in recognition.

Universal Studios, which produced the movie Seabiscuit, bought the rights to Unbroken in early 2011 and may eventually shoot a film about Zamperini, a process they started in 1957 when they bought the rights to an earlier book. He has been quoted as saying "they better hurry if they expect me to be a consultant." After all, he was born in January 1917.

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