Into Thin Air. I get seasick just by looking at a body of water, but I found my sea legs reading Patrick O' Brian's Master and Commander. And stories of war make me queasy--but I was captivated utterly by Laura Hillenbrand's storytelling in Unbroken.
Unbroken tells the story of Louie Zamperini, a young miscreant who discovered his gift of running and ran well enough to compete in the 1936 Olympics in Hitler's Berlin. His sights were set on the 1940 games in Tokyo, but of course those games were not to be.
Instead, Zamperini became a gunner on a B-24 bomber. So many airmen died in those "flying coffins," and Louie was nearly one of them. On a search-and-rescue mission, his own plane ditched into the Pacific, killing all but three of those on board.
Louie, his friend Phil, the pilot, and Mac spent weeks on two inflatable rafts, drifting towards the Marshall Islands. What they endured during that time was incomprehensible. What they were to endure after they drifted ashore was even more horrifying. Now they were POWs, in the hands of the Japanese.
In the Japanese code of honor, there was nothing more shameful than being captured. So the Japanese treated their POWs with utter brutality. The men were beaten, starved, and forced to do back-breaking labor. Yet somehow they survived.
(I found it hard to square the behavior of the Japanese guards with the kindness of the Japanese I lived among for three years in the 1980s. But now I have some understanding of the hatred some of the older generation of Westerners had for the Japanese post-war.)
Laura Hillenbrand is a writer with the rarest gifts. Her narrative pacing is impeccable; she's a mistress of the cliffhanger. As we read, we are with the men on the track; we are with them in the raft; we are with them as they struggle to survive in the prison camps. Hillenbrand paints vivid pictures, and evokes all the senses. Several times I was brought to tears by the sheer horror of what these men endured, and was reminded that we owe each of them a huge debt of gratitude.
Louie Zamperini came home from the war a shell of his former self. He was a hero, but inside, he was eaten up by hatred and anger. He drank heavily and was prone to violence. His wife insisted he go hear a young preacher, Billy Graham, and he went unwillingly. But something in Graham's message opened his heart. That night, Louie Zamperini went home, poured all his liquor down the drain, and started life anew, founding Victory Boys Camp for lost boys like him in his youth. He forgave his captors and visited Japan.
He is still alive, aged 94.
As for Hillenbrand, she has endured debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome since she was 19. Her story in itself is a tale of resilience. (You can read about it here.)
I am so glad she had it in her to bring Louie Zamperini's story to life. Unbroken is a triumph on so many levels. If you read it, you will not be disappointed.