(Audio)Book Talk: UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand (read by Edward Herrmann)

Audiobook read by Edward Herrmann
Random House (November 2010), Hardcover (ISBN 1400064163 / 9781400064168)
Nonfiction: biography/history, 496 pages
Source: Purchased audiobook (Random House Audio, November 2010, ISBN 9780739319703; Audible ASIN B004CJN7TG)
Audiobook discussion on The 3 Rs Blog UNBROKEN

Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit was, and remains, one of my favorite books from the decade before I blogged:

“I never went through that pre-teen horse-loving phase so many girls do, and I’m not big on sports, so why would a book about horse-racing have any appeal? I’ve always been glad I ignored those roadblocks and read this. The story of this unlikely champion and the people who worked with him was utterly compelling (and much better than the movie).”

I was equally indifferent to the subject of Hillenbrand’s next book after Seabiscuit, Unbroken—a racing human instead of a horse, with World War II as a backdrop—and yet there was never any question that I’d read it. I asked for a copy of it, in hardcover, for Christmas the year it was published…and it’s been sitting on my shelves ever since. The recent release of the movie adaptation was what finally got it out of TBR Purgatory—as an audiobook. (The hardcover is on its way from the bookshelves to the book-donation box.) I knew I’d get to it eventually because I was sure that once I picked it up, Hillenbrand would get me just as interested in this story as she did in Seabiscuit’s.

Once again, my confidence in the author was justified. I’m still not a sports person, and despite the fact that both my husband and my son ran track in high school, I’m really not into running. And while I’m quite interested in aspects of the World War II era, I’m not especially fascinated by reading about war itself. But I was enthralled, and sometimes horrified, by the story of Louie Zamperini.

A troublemaking, thieving kid in Torrance, California, Louie’s life took a turn for the better when he was reluctantly recruited to run track, and discovered he was good at it, setting high-school and college records in distance races on the way to a spot on the US track team at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A seventh-place finish in his event made him determined to do better in the 1940 games, but that was not to be; those Olympics, along with those scheduled for 1944, were casualties of World War II.

Hillenbrand’s accounts of pivotal races in Louie’s running career are as riveting as anything in Seabiscuit, but the real drama of this story doesn’t happen on the track. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Louie was drafted into the Army Air Corps and trained as a bombardier for air battles on the Pacific front. He didn’t see many of those, but he spent more than two years fighting for his own survival. After his plane crashed into the ocean—ironically, while on a search mission for another plane in the squadron—he and another crew member spent nearly seven weeks drifting, and starving, in a raft before they landed on a small island occupied by the Japanese. Louie’s years as a prisoner of war began there; the terrors and trials of those years, and his remarkable survival—even as the US War Department officially declares him dead—are the centerpiece of Unbroken.

As I expected, Hillenbrand relates this story vey well. But t’s a difficult and unsettling story, and reading it in audiobook is immersive in a way that sometimes makes it even tougher to hear. This is a case where a spoiler is welcome, and it helps to know going in that Louie does survive; decades later, he was able to share his own story with Hillenbrand for this book. (He died in July 2014.) It’s a one-of-a-kind life story, and I’m glad I finally came around to knowing it. Laura Hillenbrand is the perfect person to tell it, and Edward Herrmann was an excellent choice to read it for the audio.

Rating: Book and audio, 4 of 5

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

From Chapter One:

“In the predawn darkness of August 26, 1929, in the back bedroom of a small house inTorrance, California, a twelve-year-old boy sat up in bed, listening. There was a sound coming from outside, growing ever louder. It was a huge, heavy rush, suggesting immensity, a great parting of air. It was coming from directly above the house. The boy swung his legs off his bed, raced down the stairs, slapped open the back door, and loped onto the grass. The yard was otherworldly, smothered in unnatural darkness, shivering with sound. The boy stood on the lawn beside his older brother, head thrown back, spellbound.

“The sky had disappeared. An object that he could see only in silhouette, reaching across a massive arc of space, was suspended low in the air over the house. It was longer than two and a half football fields and as tall as a city. It was putting out the stars.
“What he saw was the German dirigible Graf Zeppelin. At nearly 800 feet long and 110 feet high, it was the largest flying machine ever crafted. More luxurious than the finest airplane, gliding effortlessly over huge distances, built on a scale that left spectators gasping, it was, in the summer of ’29, the wonder of the world. “

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