Monday, August 05, 2019

Review: Unbroken

If I was going to sum up Unbroken, the story of Louis Zamperini's life, in a single word I'd choose improbable. The story of his growing up, becoming a track star, fighting in Word War II, and enduring its aftermath is filled with tale after tale of the impossible becoming possible. It's a wild ride, covering the full range of human emotions. Even with a massive story arc, I found that once I started listing to the book I couldn't stop.

Besides being a riveting personal memoir, the book brings history to life. It's one thing to talk about the gruesome stats of World War II it's another to get a front row seat to the action. From the moment Zamperini's plane goes down in the Pacific he finds himself sinking deeper and deeper into the depths of hell. Shuffled to a number of prison camps within Japan, he and the reader assume that anything would be better than his current camp. And yet, each move brings him only more suffering and degradation.

One recurring theme in Zamperini's darkest moments is his ability to act even when his situation appears to have rendered him powerless. It's often those seemingly small actions that make the difference between life and death. Consider the 47 days he was adrift at sea.

At that point in the war, the Navy had equipped aircrew's life rafts with almost no long term survival gear. The 10 items Zamperini and his crew mates found in their rafts were woefully incomplete. They had no way to desalinate seawater, no way to catch rainwater, no lures to make the provided fishing hooks be of any use, no cutting tool, no canopy to provide shelter from the scorching sun, and no insulation to help brace them against cold nights. Later in the war, rafts would be far better equipped, including providing downed airmen with a hand cranked radio to signal for help. Yet, Zamperini and his fellow crew mates found themselves without any of these essentials.

And yet, they managed to improvise. They cut notches into the signal mirror turning into into a crude knife. They tore open the bags containing the air-pumps and used them as hats to provide some relief from the sun. They collected rain water in the bags, sucked it into their mouths and spat it back into the empty water tins for storage. They managed to harvest food and avoid the deadly sharks that circled them constantly. These hacks just barely worked. The operative word, of our course, being 'worked.' For years, Zamperini lived on a razor's edge, using every bit of his fortitude to survive.

I appreciate that Zamperini's ordeal doesn't end when the war does. PTSD, while more understood now, was no less prevalent in WWII. Zamperini had a textbook case of it. Like the rest of his adventures, he'd have to hang on and use every possible resource at his disposal to survive.

I first heard about Unbroken through a movie trailer. Even from the trailer I could see that the story was going to be epically exhausting and packed with difficult to digest content. And from listening to the book I can say that my hunch was correct and then some. And yet, this is absolutely required reading. My advice: buckle up and hold on, you're in for one hell of a ride!

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