Infinite Number Of Cheers For Laura Hillenbrand

And for Louie Zamperini. And for our veterans. And any WWII casualties. But especially Laura Hillenbrand. Writing Unbroken had to have been an enormous undertaking, so props to her for doing it, because the end result was amazing. Ah, getting ahead of myself, but I finished book #27 of the year, and it was obviously Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.

I’m kind of operating under the assumption that everyone has read this (some probably a while ago, it was published in 2010) and/or has seen the recent movie adaptation from this past year. I haven’t seen the movie but I want to now, if only to relive this incredible, heart-wrenching, unbelievable story.

I’ll humor myself though and pretend like someone out there hasn’t read/seen/heard about this story. It’s a (gripping) historical non-fiction account of the life of Louis Zamperini: a running prodigy who almost surely would have broken the 4-minute-mile, who enlisted for WWII, quit, then got drafted, only to be involved in a fatal-for-some plane crash, where he starved but survived for 40+ days floating on a raft in the Pacific, until he was captured by the Japanese and shuffled through Prisoner of War camps, brutally beaten, tortured, and constantly starved until the war ended in 1945.

That is a real, factual, historically accurate life. All of that actually happened to a real person, less than a century ago. The entire story is such a stranger-than-fiction scenario. I’ve already overused the word “unbelievable” and its synonyms, but the story of this man’s life really cannot be described in any other way. Calling his life “stranger than fiction” sounds flippant, but someone would be hard pressed to make a story like Louie’s up, I think.

I’m thankful for having a private space in which to read most of this book, too, because my facial expressions had to be borderline terrifying. The entire book was so intense, but also filled with such descriptive, gruesome details that probably just scratched the surface of what the POWs experienced at the hands of those running the camps. There were also vivid details of their daily living conditions, and the common (horrifying) diseases (and symptoms) that many faced.

Even before Louie went to war, the race descriptions were incredible to read. I’m not exaggerating when I say that my heart pounded as I read the race details. Which brings me back to my main point, which is “Go Hillenbrand.” Granted, I haven’t read many books incorporating running or races, but I have a hard time believing my heart rate would increase the way it did during Unbroken.

All of this is actually kind of beside the point of my main takeaway from this story, which is mostly the tragedy, the unfairness, the pointlessness of war, and the unfortunate fact that we generally have to suffer immensely before we can truly appreciate life and freedom.

First, the thought about war. What makes this story so heavy and heart-wrenching is the wasted potential not only of Zamperini, but of every single POW in Japan during the war, whether they were mentioned by name in this book or listed as a staggering statistic. As Hillenbrand describes in the epilogue, that war did not end in 1945 for any POW, instead raging on for the majority of their never-the-same lives. But it was all so pointless, which adds to the heaviness and the tragedy.

The second thing, about the suffering: my big complaint for today was that I was running late to work because my garage door opener hasn’t been working lately, so I had to take the extra time to shut it manually. That’s it. I will never experience even the tiniest fraction of anything that Zamperini has endured.

Even before he was a soldier, there’s an anecdote about a race where his opposing teammates surround him and stab his feet and shins with their track spikes. That’s probably the least severe thing to happen to him in this book, and I’m most likely (for sure) never going to have to worry about that, or suffer through that, or even remotely experience what the feels like. And that’s not even to mention suffering through a violent plane crash, witnessing death almost daily, starving for basically three years straight, or being mentally demeaned and made to feel less than human every single day.

But hey. My garage door opener wouldn’t work, and I had to drive a little bit faster to get to work on time.

In the closing chapters and epilogue of Unbroken, Hillenbrand runs through the less turbulent, happier final decades of Zamperini’s life, and I found all of that to be equally as incredible as the rest of his story. He endured so much, survived, and went on to thrive and use his experiences to help others learn and grow.

And who knows, maybe Zamperini would have had an equally positive impact if he never went to war, stuck around and set running records left and right until retirement. But somehow, because I think this is ironically how it always goes, I don’t think it would have been the same.

I’ve been rambling, but everyone should read this book immediately, if you haven’t already. It’s intense, unbelievable, suspenseful, inspiring, sometimes hard to read, emotional. One second I’d be laughing at some rare, dark humor, the next I’d be nauseous, and by the end of the page I’d be bawling.

I’m not kidding, I cried upwards of ten times while reading this, so I can’t stress that don’t-read-it-in-public point enough. ◊

On Kwajalein, Louie and Phil learned a dark truth known to the doomed in Hitler’s death camps, the slaves of the American South, and a hundred other generations of betrayed people. Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food, and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”

– page 183

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