Book Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

unbroken-by-laura-hillenbrand-goodreads-creator-and-curatorNo. of pages: 500 pages

Publisher: Fourth Estate, December 4, 2014 (first published in November 16, 2010)

Setting: America, the Pacific Ocean, and Japan

Original Title: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand was not the first historical non-fiction book I’ve read (The Secret Ministry of Ag. & Fish: My Life In Churchill’s School For Spies by Noreen Riols was the other historical non-fiction that I read earlier). And it definitely won’t be the last either. I’ve also read my share of historical fiction; books with plots that followed the timelines of World War II but with fictional characters.

Yet, no matter how many times I read this genre of books, no matter how often I come across the sheer brutality of the Japanese and the Nazi during the Second World War, no matter how many times I shudder and shiver at the pain and suffering that the POWs (prisoners of war) endured, I still get nightmares and it’s still frightening to think that these men, brave and courageous soldiers, were beaten to a pulp (some barely alive by the time they were picked up and rescued) and had their dignities destroyed. Reduced to stick-thin figures, all bones and skin. All because they had been sent by the country to fight these evildoers and banish them from our lands. No man was spared from the torture, especially after they were captured by the enemies.

And Louis Zamperini was no exception either. Zamperini had been an Olympic miler who broke records before he was drawn to join the army and fight for the freedom of America. He probably never thought he was ever going to go down the same path as every other POW had been. He wasn’t alone, of course. Russell Allen Phillips, his pilot, had been in the same boat (and raft) with him when they were both picked up by the Japanese. He had also made friends while fighting in the war. Most of his friends either died while fighting, on take-off or during flights when the planes weren’t in mint condition, or captured by the enemies. Most of them had not made it back alive.

Synopsis via Goodreads:

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

The nightmares had only just begun for poor Louie Zamperini. If he thought that being adrift on a leaky raft with two of his comrades with no food and no water, and sharks circling them in the vast and wide Pacific Ocean was a case of bad luck, he certainly has not seen the worst on the other side. Upon being picked up by a ship-ful of Japanese sailors, he knew that there would be no way out. Not until Nagasaki and Hiroshima were flattened by the American bombers. But he wouldn’t know that until much later, after suffering from misery and abuse at the hands of his brutal Japanese captors.

But just as abruptly when the war began, the war soon shuddered to a halt when the B-29 bombers dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was only then that the atrocities of the Japanese ended. But the torment would live on forever in the hearts and minds of the captured Allied soldiers who went through a daily routine of savage and merciless beatings, clubbing, kicking and starvation. Stories about wars always bring tears to one’s eyes, especially if they carried the immense heartache that people suffered from and succumbed to.

Despite the horrors, I find it hard to put the book down. It’s understandable if anyone were to read this book would start despising the Japanese, considering how much brutal torture they subjected the Allied servicemen in their prisoner-of-war concentration camps and execution camps. Even though the war took place about 70 years ago! It’s amazing how the author is able to inject humour and wit into a few hundred pages of pain, death, torture and suffering. It is a coincidence that I should finish reading this book a day after the war began with the Japanese flattening Pearl Harbour, marking the beginning of World War II on 7 December 1941 against Britain and United States.

It was just as painful reading this as it had been with other books detailing the horrors of World War II, whether it was about the Nazi or Japanese. Both were equally horrendous in their treatment of the POWs in their extermination or concentration camps. For Louis Zamperini, life only began for him after the war. When he was declared dead after being lost to the world, after he was rescued, he somehow outlived his brother Pete and sisters Virginia and Sylvia. No one should ever have to go through so much pain. No one should ever have to see so much horror. We ordinary people don’t understand what the POWs had suffered at the hands of their captors, and we probably never will. It was certainly a rather extraordinary story of one young man’s courage and survival. And determination to live.

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