Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand


Sometime in Mar 2014, I bought the book, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. I began reading it almost immediately. 
The book tells the tale of Louie Zamperini, the legendary runner from the US, whose tale of survival through the horrors of WW-II first as a survivor at sea from an air mishap for 47 days and then as a POW in Japan for nearly 2.5 years, lends the title to the book.

I must admit that I have not have had much interest as an adult in war stories. Most of my interest in Zamperini’s tale stemmed from his being a runner. Some tinder was set to it, thanks to the movie announced by Jolie, due to release in Dec 2014 and early 2015.

But the book I must say, makes compelling reading. I also found it extremely difficult to read because it played havoc with my head. It has detailed descriptions of torture inflicted on Louie and his fellow POWs that make your stomach churn, overwhelm you emotionally, make you lose your appetite and sometimes all of these together. What kept me going was that I knew Zamperini was alive and hence must have somehow survived the various ordeals he underwent in the book.

Particularly despair-inducing was the fact that Louie was running a 4:12 mile before he was peaking as an athlete in his quest to attend the 1940 Olympics, before war stole his best years. There aren’t many who have run in the Olympics 5000m final at the age of 19, especially having not run even a dozen races at that distance. Louie was set to discover his calling as a miler before WW-II threw his plans in disarray. I am aware of various accounts of the horrors of war - both large and small from around the world across eras. So this should not have been that tough to digest. But I find it easy to relate to Louie (despite not being anywhere close to even a 5 minute mile let alone a 4:06-4:07 mile) since I understand the effort that goes into training for one. And then to see it all wiped away plunges you into a sort of public depression where you share his misery although you are actually not undergoing any of it. Sample this extract from the book “Someone brought Louie the Aug 15 issue of the Minneapolis Star-Journal. Near the back was an article titled “Lest We Forget,” discussing athletes who had died in the war. More than 400 amateur, professional and collegiate athletes had been killed, incl. 19 pro football players, 5 American League Baseball players, 11 pro golfers and 1920 Olympic champion sprinter Charlie Paddock*, whom Louie had known”. Some of the anecdotes about courage and gentlemanly behaviour by the officers under testing conditions are simply mind-blowing.

I would strongly recommend you read it too if you like reading about athletes or about the WW-II or tales of resilience in general. Once you learn about such stories, you can dig deep in your own moments of misery, rather than be overwhelmed or wallow in self-pity. It is quite a big book, but I assure you that not a page will bore you.

Postscript: I did begin this post planning on writing a review of the book but I find it disturbing to revisit the horrors of war, which occupy a significant portion of the book. So, I have left the reader with only a taste of what the book contains and how it made me feel, which I feel is enough for you to decide whether you should read the book too.

* For those of you who have seen Chariots of Fire, Charley Paddock is one of the American athletes Harold Abrahams meets in the 1924 Olympics.