Monday, December 5

Book review on the run: Unbroken

I just finished reading Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand, of Seabiscuit fame. I am aware that I am in the minority in not loving the book, but I cannot lie. I did not love the book. I appreciated the book. I am glad I read it. I did not love it.

But that is my beef with the storyteller.
I was completely enthralled with the story itself.

Louis Zamparini's life story -- childhood mischief, training for the Olympic trials, running the 5000 at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin (and being greeted by Hitler as "the boy with the fast finish!"), joining the Army Air Corps to fight in WWII, surviving a plane crash over the Pacific and subsequent weeks of drifting at sea without food or water, being captured by the Japanese, spending years in a POW camp, suffering PTSD, and eventually turning his life around -- is a tale for the ages.

Zamperini's biography is inspiring, humbling, and even the hardest-hearted reader is likely to gasp in horror at the conditions in the prison camps. I found myself pausing to appreciate the comforts in my own life. (A bed with blankets! And no vermin! What a joy!)

As a runner, it is impossible to miss the parallels between Zamperini's single-minded determination on the track in his youth, and his single-minded will to survive the POW camps. And he did survive and overcome the ravages of war.

Ultimately this is an amazing-but-true story of the triumph of the human spirit over atrocities that are almost unspeakable.

Unfortunately I found Hillenbrand's writing to be a less than compelling vehicle for this amazing tale. To her credit, the biography was meticulously researched. Hillenbrand's attention to details is incredible. However, to me the story at times felt stilted, as though the intent was a documentary film on war crimes, not a biography.

I felt like I was watching Zamperini's suffering and salvation on a black and white screen, not that I was seeing it through his eyes. Hillenbrand reportedly interviewed Zamperini seventy five times (according to the NY Times) during the writing of the book. Given her access to the hero of the story, some first-person quotes would have helped the text greatly. (Perhaps if I had not just finished The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a science/biography told in compelling detail, I would not have found the detachment so jarring.)

But I am just one reviewer.
TIME called Unbroken the best non-fiction book of the year in 2010 and the LA Times loved it.

So please read it. And come back to let me know what you think.
And if you've read it already...
What did you think of the book?


  1. I read it, and I liked it! I can see what you mean in your criticisms but overall I liked it a lot. The story itself was enough for me. I seriously almost thought it had to be fabricated in some way because it was just so unbelievable.

  2. Just finished it and I agree with you. Loved the story, but not the storytelling. She definitely got mired down in detail at points and did a poor job of transitioning at other points. In short, I think should could have done more with less. But wow--how amazing is Louis Z?


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