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Book Review

A Harrowing Account of Survival and Redemption

Unbroken (Young Adult Version)
by Laura Hillenbrand

Contains: Language, Violence
Recommended age: 14+
Adventure, Biography, Non-Fiction


“In its rampage over the east, Japan had brought atrocity and death on a scale that staggers the imagination. In the midst of it were prisoners of war. Japan held some 132,000 POWs from America, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Holland, and Australia. Of those, nearly 36,000 died, more than one in every four… Americans fared particularly badly; of the 34,648 Americans held in Japan, 12,935 – more than 37 percent – died.” (228)

The brutal treatment of prisoners of war by Imperial Japanese soldiers during the Second World War is a horrifying reality that cannot be understood through statistics alone. More important than the harrowing numbers are the stories of those who suffered these war crimes. Through Unbroken, and particularly its adapted version for young adults, Laura Hillenbrand has brought one such story to a new generation. The story is of Louie Zamperini, who was unique in his celebrity as a teenage Olympian before the war, and certainly heroic in his saga before being captured, having been lost at sea for 47 days before his internment. His experiences as a POW, however, were common to Americans captured in the Pacific. For over two years, Zamperini, like tens of thousands of his brothers in arms, endured physical and psychological abuse from his captors in a desperate struggle to preserve his life, and to preserve a thing critical to his survival: his human dignity.

One of the many remarkable aspects of Louie’s story is that he spent his boyhood balancing unsuccessfully between rambunctiousness and delinquency, committing regular acts of theft, brawling, truancy, and alcohol use. It seemed to Louie that no one saw goodness in him except his mother, and no one saw potential in him except his older brother, Pete. Pete had decided that he was going to turn Louie into a track star, but Louie refused to buy in until he hit rock bottom during a miserable attempt to run away from home at the age of fifteen. After that, Louie dedicated himself to running and, over the next four years, became one of the best middle-distance runners in the world, qualifying for the 1936 Olympics. Running transformed him from local pariah to national hero.

This was the first personal redemption that Louie would experience. The rest would be results of his service as a bombardier in the Army Air Corps during World War II. Several years before the 1939 outbreak of the Second World War, Imperial Japan unleashed a terrible campaign of expansion over East Asia. Intense nationalism and a feeling of racial superiority led the Japanese to commit horrible atrocities as they conquered Korea, China, and the lands of Southeast Asia and the East Indies. After the United States imposed economic sanctions on the belligerent nation, Japan brought the war to American soil by attacking Pearl Harbor. Putting his running career and college education on hold, Louie Zamperini enlisted in the military after hearing of the events on Oahu that infamous day.

The grittiness picked up in his youth and the physical and mental toughness developed through countless miles on the track are probably what saved Louis Zamperini in his WWII odyssey. His survival is awe-inspiring: living through a plane crash, shark attacks, weeks on the open ocean, and two years of beatings, forced labor, and starvation. Perhaps a greater theme than his perseverance, though, is seen not through the way that Louie’s life was preserved in Japan and the Pacific, but how his life was saved after his liberation and return home to California. Despite being a national hero once again, reuniting with his family, getting married and having a daughter, Louie was racked with fear and the stress of his traumatic war years. Finding himself spiraling out of control through ceaseless nightmares, alcoholism, and fits of rage and despair, Louie, helped by his wife, found redemption in forgiving his captors and remembering and honoring a promise he had made to God while on the raft hundreds of miles from land.

Unbroken is a story that should be read by young men, if for no other reason than to keep the memory of our prisoners of war alive. To read it while also studying the Second World War would be mutually illuminating, by, on the one hand, giving the reader a character to place within the historical narrative, and on the other, to provide a broader context for events within the book. While Hillenbrand gives the reader enough information to understand the basics of the war in the Pacific, this is not a history book. In fact, to leave the reader unaware of certain developments of the war between the United States and Japan, while continuing on with the narrative of Zamperini’s imprisonment, actually helps the reader to appreciate the situation of the captives, who were starved for information about the war effort. Still, the descriptions of Zamperini’s bombing missions and the discussion of the perils of aviation in the Pacific theater provide a great sense of the many hazards that these airmen faced.

Having been made into a blockbuster film, boys may be tempted to view Unbroken on the screen rather than reading it from the page. Aside from the classic arguments for reading, the pace of reading as opposed to watching is incredibly valuable to the historical integrity of the topic. Events and issues arise in the text that need to sink in and be explored deeply. The reasons behind Japanese brutality, the moral implications of bombing campaigns, and the suffering of veterans returning to society are too complex to even approach in a two-hour seventeen-minute movie. A 282-page book can do these important themes more justice without skimping at all on the action and suspense.

As important as it is for our boys to know of the sacrifices made by the men and women of our armed forces and the valor of fighting against oppressive and tyrannical forces, there are gruesome details of war to which our younger men do not yet need to be exposed. To this end, the young adult adaptation of Unbroken provides a means, by selecting out some of the more grisly details of Louie’s ordeal and cleaning up the language. That being said, the account is by no means sterilized, for it does present to the reader a realistic view of the extreme hardships faced by Zamperini and of the crimes against humanity committed by many within the Japanese Imperial military. Some episodes to check before handing the book over to your child: in Chapter 28 the prisoners trick one of their captors into using curse words under the pretense of teaching him English; a haunting image in Chapter 32 of a POW found starved to death by liberation forces is the only questionable image in a book illustrated with a wealth of terrific visuals; two of the final chapters include difficult scenes of alcoholism and violence induced by post-traumatic stress.

Study Questions

  1. When Louie, Phil, and Mac are drifting in their rafts, does Mac act as a villain or a hero?
  2. In the camps, what did Louie and the others do to resist the Japanese and in what ways did this help them survive?
  3. How did Louie’s experience as an athlete help him to overcome the many trials he faced after the crash?
  4. Louie gave up his very promising running career, stopped his studies at college, and left his beloved family, to enlist in the Army Air Corps. What do you think motivated him to do this? What might he have been feeling?
  5. After returning home, Louie was plagued by horrific nightmares and flashbacks that nearly cost him his family and his life. What finally proved to be the cure for these ails? Why did it lead him to healing? After going through all of that at the hands of ‘the Bird’ and the other guards, could you have done what Louie did?

About the Reviewer

Kyle Blackmer

Seventh Grade Core, History
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