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Unbroken Will Break Your Heart and Warm Your Soul

Susan Ellingburg

Author:  Laura Hillenbrand

Title: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption

Publisher: Random House

Shot down over enemy waters during World War II, Louis Zamperini and two of his crewmates were left to float helplessly on a small raft in the Pacific Ocean without tools, medical supplies, food, or water—for forty-seven days. Two of the three—one perished out there on the ocean―were finally rescued.

Things went downhill from there.

A Japanese prisoner of war camp was not where Louis expected to find himself in the early 1940s. He thought he'd be competing in the Olympics. Heck, he thought he'd be winning a gold medal, setting a world record, breaking the four-minute mile barrier. So did everyone else who'd seen him run. If he hadn't eaten himself silly on his way the Berlin Olympics, he'd have broken that record before the war. (A child of the Depression, Louis found the vast quantities of food on the ship too tempting to resist. He arrived in Germany twelve pounds heavier than he left, a fate many modern cruise passengers can appreciate.)

But war broke out, the Olympics were cancelled, and Louis joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier. Louis and his crew had a good run before that fateful day he found himself adrift in enemy waters, trying to avoid sharks and Japanese soldiers alike.

He managed to fight off the sharks. Unfortunately for Louis, those in charge of the prison he ended up in were meaner than any bloodthirsty sea creature—and the meanest of them all was the one they named "the Bird." A vicious sadist, the Bird saved his most savage attacks for the defiant Louis, making it his personal mission to make Louis's life a living hell. For a time, the only thing that kept Louis and his fellow prisoners going was plotting the Bird's murder. The plot failed, but it kept their hope alive.

Gritty and painful as Louis' time as a prisoner was, that's just part of the story. Since the book is based on his memories it's not too much of a spoiler to say that Louis survived the war—barely—and returned to California and the family who'd been told he was dead. Naturally, years of deprivation and torture left a mark on Louis' spirit. It drove him to alcoholism and violence. For a while, it looked like the Bird's harsh treatment would destroy Louis after all. Then Billy Graham came to town, Louis's wife persuaded him to go to the meeting, and Louis's life would never be the same.

Hillenbrand is a meticulous researcher, and Unbroken shows it. Not only did she have the benefit of talking to Louis, she tracked down friends, family, and enemies in her effort to tell the most complete story possible. It's a fascinating—and occasionally appalling—look at a unique time in history through the eyes of those who lived it. Don't let the grim sections put you off. Unbroken really is, as its subtitle says, a story of survival, resilience and redemption.

*This Article First Published 12/1/2010

Originally published December 01, 2010.

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