The Sunday Salon Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

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 …

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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.

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Read more from The Sunday Salon here.

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18 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon Review: Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

  1. UNBROKEN is on my wish list — I’ll keep your observations in mind when I do read it. Everything I’ve read about the background to this personal story is fascinating.

    Good for you, enjoying an afternoon break at Starbucks! 🙂

    • Laurel-Rains, my quibble with this book is just that: a quibble. It bothered me, but it’s also quite subtle and the story is so amazing, it’s well worth reading.

  2. Yeah, I didn’t get that from the book at all.

    Personally I felt that the serviceman in question was expressing his opinion. Also I think it’s easy for those of us who weren’t there undergoing the torture to pass judgment.

    Or as my wife says, “It’s easy for us to have an opinion on the war in hindsight. It’s harder for those who lived it.”

    Myself, I thought the book was a great book and one everyone, regardless of nationality should read, because the story was so gripping. To me, it was more about the human spirit than jingoism.

    • unfinishedperson, I was not saying the story was “about” jingoism. As you said, it’s about the human spirit. I also completely agree with you and your wife. And I can understand why servicemen would hold certain opinions.

      My issue is with the author’s decision to use this material. I actually felt she walked a nicely balanced line through most of the book, but a few bits slipped out here and there that made me uncomfortable. The story would have been just as gripping, and just as emotional, without this subtle thread running through the text.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. I’ll be interested to see what you make of Palladian. I haven’t read it but Angel is one of my favourite books. I haven’t read the Barbara Comyns, either – I’ll put it on my list.

    Have a great week.

    • Helen, I read about 40 pages of Palladian yesterday and am really enjoying it so far. It’s typical Elizabeth Taylor fare, and it’s been a while since I read any of her books, so it’s also a bit of a comfort read.

  4. Well, this particular judgment of the book is a revisionist judgment and lacking in real-time clarity of the moment. Has the reviewer considered the staggering loss of life that would have incurred if we had mounted an amphibious invasion of the mainland instead of dropping the “bombs” on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though the savagery of such a weapon cannot be denied, the reviewer is seeing things from the perspective of a politically correct intellectual who has not personally witnessed an entire country placed on war footing against an enemy which had the capacity and will to dominate a large portion of the globe and to do so with a savage fury of unparalleled scale. The reviewer has no idea what it was like to live in those times. She simply has no idea. At times in history, it becomes necessary to break the back of the monster. In this case, the monster was an entire society which had been perverted by violence and racist militaristic chauvinism. Everything Japan had done to that point demonstrated that the Japanese soldier and civilian would die to the last person. An invasion (cutting off the dog’s tail an inch at a time) would have resulted in an estimated 500,000 American casualties and untold numbers of Japanese casualties. The bomb, though evil, was the lesser evil (135,000 dead). Unbroken tells the truth about the times and the emotions. Diane, if we had to choose all over again, would you recommend an invasion or would you agree, the bomb was the right decision? Remember that without the bomb, Louis Zamperini would likely have been executed by the end of August 1945. Remember that.

  5. There are a couple of comments here which I find a bit surprising for their anger, their presumption of knowledge about what the reviewer does or does not know,as well as being unnecessarily aggressive in how their points are being made.

    This is a book blog. The reviews are the personal opinion of the reviewer after reading any given book. I have been following it since its inception and have always found the blogger’s reviews to be thoughtful, deeply considered and always politely worded.

    It would be lovely if readers who leave comments could rise to the same level of courtesy. Just showing up and saying “you are wrong” or assuming knowledge about the blogger’s “perspective of a politically correct intellectual” does not enhance an alternative perception of the book being reviewed. I always like to read different points of view about books but become very uncomfortable when these are delivered in the form of personal attacks.

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