Let me just say up front that I?ve never read Seabiscuit. I know, I know, it?s a lot of people?s favorite book. But I?m not much of a horse person, and I never got around to it. I am, however, a huge fan of World War II stories, and that?s what Laura Hillenbrand has served up in Unbroken, the biography of an extraordinary U.S. Army Air Force officer with a name out of a Marx Brothers movie — Louie Zamperini — who was shot down over the Pacific, chased by sharks while floating for more than a month on a raft, and imprisoned in a hellish Japanese POW camp. Amazingly, the guy survived it all and is now a ripe old 93.
It?s clear that Hillenbrand, who spent seven years on this book, was looking for another large, inspirational subject. And in some ways, she?s found it. Zamperini?s story is an astonishing testament to the superhuman power of tenacity. Captured by the Japanese and designated an ”unarmed combatant” — why does that have a familiar ring to it? — ?he was beaten, starved, and forced into slave labor at a salt mine. There?s no way the man should have endured as long as he did. Just as remarkable is the fact that an elderly Zamperini sat down with Hillenbrand for no fewer than 75 interviews, all the while retaining his rascally sense of humor (”It?ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,” she quotes him in the acknowledgments, ”because I can talk”).
Hillenbrand is a better writer than a lot of historians and biographers. At times her prose even veers toward the poetic. But she?s still a historian, and she gives this story a chronological structure that frankly gets a little plodding (you have to wade through 130 pages of Zamperini?s childhood before his bomber crashes and the plot kicks in). Also, as inspiring as Zamperini?s tale is, his ordeal isn?t exactly a joy to experience on the page. I occasionally had to give myself a break from the bleakness of his life in the POW camp. All of which makes Unbroken a good book, sometimes even a profound book, but it?s probably not going to be anybody?s favorite book. B