Wednesday, June 29, 2011

June is Audiobook Month: REVIEW: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. Published 2010 by Random House. Audiobook narrated by Edward Herrmann.

This review contains some spoilers with respect to the fates of certain individuals whose lives are documented in the book. However, these facts are readily available and well-documented elsewhere.

When Unbroken came out in fall of last year, it was pretty much the "it" nonfiction book of the season; everyone was raving about the story of Louis Zamperini, an Italian-American Olympic runner and World War II prisoner of war, and his inspiring story from backstreet shenanigans in Torrance, California to the 1936 Munich Olympics to the POW camps of Japan, and finally, to redemption and peace.

It's hard to know what to say about Unbroken that hasn't already been said- good and bad. Yes, it's very inspiring. I welled up when Louis won a major race, cringed at his gruesome ordeal lost at sea for more than 40 days and his horrifying times in Japanese prison camps. Then, I rejoiced at his rescue, and rooted for his recovery as he started to come to terms with it all. The stories of the people who accompanied him on his journeys- and whose own journeys are recounted- are equally fascinating in their own way. His nemesis, prison guard Matsuhiro Watanabe, is a stunning villain; his friends have their own happy and unhappy trajectories, with their own victories and failures. And the story of the Pacific theater during the war is one that sometimes gets forgotten alongside the bloodbath that was Europe. (My own high school education on World War 2 basically started and stopped with Europe and I knew very little about the Pacific at all.)

I had a couple of issues. Hillenbrand recounts brutalities committed by the Japanese in great detail, telling us that 37% of POWs in Japanese camps died, as opposed to 2-3% in German and Italian camps; that statistic is chilling enough without the meaningless comparison to Germany and Italy. It's not as though the Nazis and the Fascists were somehow nicer. They had the Jews to enslave, starve, torture and experiment on; they could afford to go easy on POWs and still serve out horrifying inhumanity. A different comparison might have been more appropriate. As another reviewer noted, there's a little American exceptionalism at play, too. She quotes a US serviceman who says that, with respect to the death and destruction the US unleashes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that "the ends justify the means" as a way of putting a stop to the war and by extension Japanese brutality.  Really? On the other hand, when Watanabe evades capture as a sought-after war criminal, Hillenbrand never even breathes a whisper about the possibility of the complicity of authorities in his escape. And to my mind she goes pretty easy on the US government for consenting to drop all charges and commute sentences of many Japanese war criminals- a bitter irony when you consider that leniency against Nazis is, and should be, to this day, unimaginable.

On balance, I enjoyed the book for what I learned about the Pacific war, the Japanese war machine and the compelling, inspirational personal stories of Zamperini and his compatriots. Edward Herrmann narrates the story with aplomb on the audio version and the story flows along very well. As you can see I have some issues with the way Hillenbrand handles certain aspects of the history and with her unclear point of view. I don't expect history to be objective by any means but I do expect a historian to take a position and stick with it. I think Unbroken is probably more along the lines of popular history anyway, and that's fine if that's what you're looking for, and it certainly will stir emotions and generate tears and smiles by the end.  I liked the book; I didn't love it, unlike most readers, but I enjoyed it enough to recommend it to those looking for a good page-turner about an interesting person who lived a most unusual life. The ending is beautiful and poetic and the journey is well worth the effort.


I'm a Powell's partner and receive a small commission on sales.

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.