Today’s post is coming a bit late in the day, for three reasons. First, I intended to write a book review, but needed to finish the book first! I read the last 15 pages or so early this morning. Second, we had a few things to do in the morning and early afternoon. And finally, on returning home we found the power was out! I’m writing this post from a Starbucks, enjoying free wifi and a latte.
This week I finished my chunkster-thon with Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and I’ve now moved on to two short-ish Virago Modern Classics: Palladian, by Elizabeth Taylor; and Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns. Taylor is one of my favorite authors, and Comyns is an author I’ve been wanting to read for some time. Plus I have 5 of her books in my Virago bookcase, so I’d better get on with it.
But first, I need to write that book review …
In the late 1930s, Louie Zamperini was a young hell-raiser growing up in Torrance, California. He was also an aspiring Olympic runner, breaking records in nearly every race as he closed in on a 4-minute mile. But in 1941, like so many young American men, he joined the military to serve in World War II. As a member of the Army Air Corps, he was on board a bomber that crashed in the Pacific Ocean in May 1943. Louie and two crewmen survived. Unbroken is an amazing account of Louie’s survival, both from the crash and over two years’ imprisonment in a Japanese POW camp, and of his struggle to regain his dignity and re-enter “normal” American society.
Unbroken is a very personal story; since Zamperini is still alive, Laura Hillenbrand had direct access to him and to his scrapbooks and other memorabilia. Through Louie she learned a great deal about his beloved crew members and soldiers he met in the camps. She also learned about the man Zamperini came to fear most: a Japanese guard nicknamed “The Bird,” whose brutality landed him 7th on the list of war criminals sought for trial after the war. The result is an emotional page-turner that sometimes made me smile, more often made my stomach churn, and occasionally brought tears to my eyes.
So why did I rate it only 3.5 stars? There was a tinge of American exceptionalism running through this book that bothered me. Early on, Hillenbrand described the Nanking Massacre, which laid groundwork for an “Americans are good, Japanese are bad” theme. Other more subtle cues appeared elsewhere in the text, as when one of Louie’s crewmates describes a failed Japanese bombing as “inept.” The last straw for me was near the end of the book after the Japanese surrender, as Hillenbrand summed up the war. Of Japan’s role in the conflict she wrote, “In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination.” She then went on to cite casualty figures that, frankly, were nowhere close to the casualties from the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And a few pages later, describing those horrific bombings, she quoted a serviceman who felt “the end probably justified the means.” I’m telling you, it turned my stomach.
And yet, I would still recommend this book as a first-hand account of the realities of war. Just be forewarned.
Read more from The Sunday Salon here.