Occasionally, you are lucky enough to stumble across a human story so inspiring that it has the potential to change your view of the world. “Unbroken” is exactly that kind of a book, so full of life and hope that it has stayed with me from the moment I started reading the first page. At its heart, it is the story of a man whose belief in himself and his family gives him the strength, stubbornness and moral fortitude to survive great hardships and live an extraordinary life. I picked it up in an airport last week, tired, far from home and looking for something to keep me going for the eight hours it would take to get back to London. I had no expectation of finding something which would get under my skin so profoundly, and remind me of people I have loved and the qualities of theirs, and Louis’, which I cherish.
Karen Hillenbrand introduces us to Louis Zamperini when he is a warm-hearted but wayward boy – the thefts and fights which once marked him out as a naughty child are threatening to limit his life as a man until his beloved brother Pete intervenes, and forces him to channel his wild energy into running. Through a combination of hard-work, grit and innate talent Louis fast becomes one of the most impressive runners of his generation – the figure whom many thought would break the elusive four minute-mile long two decades before Roger Bannister eventually managed to do so. Hillenbrand makes it beautifully apparent how much of Louis’ success was down to his ability to push his body to its limits through sheer force of will, as well as Pete’s unshakable faith in a little brother so many had written off as a juvenile delinquent; the Zamperini brothers are presented as an unbeatable team, and a testament to the way in which the path of a troubled child can be changed by faith and patience.
It is when Louis is just beginning to realize the greatness he could achieve on the track that he finds himself embroiled in the Second World War, in his capacity as a bombardier for the U.S. Air Force. I was desperate for him to get through it unscathed not just because I had grown to be so very fond of him but because I wanted him to find out how much he could achieve as an athlete. As it continues, though, Louis’ story inevitably forces you to put his abilities into perspective: his athleticism was a symptom of those things which made him such an extraordinary and special man, but it did not limit or define him. The fortitude and love of life which had given him wings as a runner also carried him through innumerable, impossible challenges during the war – it is a humbling experience, bearing witness to the trials he was asked to endure.
That fortitude is essentially the focus of the third act of the book, in which Louis is held in a Japanese prisoner of war camp having survived an astonishing forty-seven days adrift at sea on a life-raft. Hillenbrand states, with a complete lack of vitriol or sensationalism, exactly what Louis and so many other PoWs suffered in these hellish camps, and the reality of their suffering is so horrifying that I had to pause after every page or so. I urgently needed to know whether each man singled out for Hillenbrand’s attention survived, but it simply was not possible to turn the pages without pausing in sorrow and respect for the way in which these men held on to their dignity in the face of such insanity – and also their humour; the PoW’s many acts of defiance were wonderfully inventive, and bound the men together in the numerous conspiracies which so often seemed to have sustained them. As an Olympian, Louis was hunted down and subjected to particularly brutal treatment by a Japanese soldier called the Bird, a man driven to the brink of madness by Louis’ physical prowess and indomitable spirit. Even after the war’s end this man would haunt Louis’ dreams, and it is thanks to Hillenbrand’s sensitive writing that, like Louis, you are by the end able to move beyond simply hating the Bird. He is ultimately a complicated figure of pity, so consumed by his own sense of ill-treatment and grandeur that he is unable to accept Louis’ remarkable offer of forgiveness.
He may not have been broken by the war but Louis was, like so many others, damaged in innumerable invisible ways – and to an extent this is the part of his story I found hardest to bear. Haunted by the Japanese camps, unable to run and driven to alcohol in a bid to forget, Louis reaches his nadir – at one point waking in the middle of the night to find himself strangling his pregnant wife, thinking that she is the Bird. In the end it is his family and a new-found faith in God which help Louis to rise above these impossible traumas and find peace. Whatever your faith, or lack thereof, this religious awakening only enhanced my sense of Louis’ invincibility: he was unbreakable in part because he had an ability to connect to something larger than himself; whether that be his brother’s love, his faithfulness to the men he served with, his vivid memories of home, or, ultimately, his Christianity. Multiple bonds are harder to break than one; Louis Zamperini was an exceptional man who seemed to find happiness through belonging to something greater than himself. I know that from now on his story will become one of the touchstones by which I measure my own life.