A couple of times when I was growing up, I got asked by various friends who visited my house if my family was Jewish. A few other times, people who knew for sure that we weren’t Jewish (as in, friends from our Protestant church, most likely) made jokes in my presence that my family might as well be Jewish. Because this happened more than once, I quickly tired of the joke, and my standard response was usually, “Ah yes, because of my dad’s Holocaust bookcase.”
There are several bookcases in my parents’ house. Several is actually an understatement. The bookcases are strategically placed throughout the house, and there is some sort of system to (at least some of) them. I wasn’t really allowed to borrow books from my dad when I was growing up because he’s rather particular about the condition of his reading materials. Plus, I’m known to take a year or more to finish a book or to even get around to starting it. But one bookcase of his that I couldn’t keep my hands off of was the one that houses his Holocaust collection. My dad has an impressive accumulation of Holocaust literature and memorabilia, and it is this bookcase that stood out to my friends more than any other. Not only does it hold books; this bookcase is home to menorahs, stars of David, and at least one copy of the Tanakh.
This collection of my dad’s was the catalyst that kicked off my fascination with and appetite for Holocaust literature. I have now read multiple WWII fiction and nonfiction accounts that detail Germany’s strategic efforts, Hitler’s invasions, the horrors of concentration camps, the sadistic medical experiments, etc. I have seen many Holocaust movies, both mainstream and independent. I took a class in college called Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, and I traveled to Washington DC the summer after taking that class, with a friend, my sole objective being to visit the Holocaust museum there. So it can be said with some truth that I am well versed in Holocaust and WWII literature.
So several weeks ago, as I was perusing the library’s nonfiction newsletter, I came across a book the subtitle of which included a WWII reference, and I was unsurprisingly intrigued. I added the book to my hold queue and waited for it come in. When I picked it up, I noted the accolade on the cover: “#1 New York Times bestselling author of Seabiscuit.”
The reference to Seabiscuit meant nothing to me, except my knowledge that the book did well enough to be made into a movie – a movie, however, that bored me so much in the first few minutes that I turned it off and didn’t finish. So that was all I had going into the read of Laura Hillenbrand’s second book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.
So this past Sunday night, when I realized it was 1:00 a.m. and I’d flown through the first 100 pages of the book and beyond, I knew I was in for a really good read. For the next two days, I was glued to the book and was unable to put it down until I finished it early Tuesday evening, and my first thought was, I have to tell people about this book. (Lo and behold, I found out the next day that a large part of the world already knows about this book, since it’s NPR’s February book club recommendation and they’ve been having chats with the author all month. Lucky me, that I happened to crack it open and zip through it, just as the rest of the world is doing the same thing.)
The blurb on the inside jacket cover mentions the hero of the book’s name, Louie Zamperini. It also mentions his Olympic athletic accomplishments and the fact that he was an Army Air Forces lieutenant – a bombardier, to be specific. Mention is made of the fact that his plane crashed into the Pacific in 1943 and that he would then be in for the survival struggle of a lifetime as he floated along on a life raft with two fellow servicemen – one injured, one catatonic – hoping to be rescued.
This, of course, was an interesting enough narrative thread and teaser to get me to read the book. But imagine my (pleasant) surprise when I got through the first third of the book and everything alluded to in the front-jacket blurb had already come to pass – and I still had 200 pages left to read! What followed was a horrific, page-turning account of the war on the Japanese front.
There are scores of books and memoirs and biographies and autobiographies out there that focus on the horrors that the Nazis inflicted on Jews in their concentration camps. Unbroken is the first WWII book I have ever read in which Germany plays a minor role. Japan and the atrocities perpetuated by its soldiers are the spotlight of much of this book. This up-close, graphic, raw glimpse into life as a Japanese prisoner of war affected me deeply, and I will not soon forget it.
Hillenbrand lauds many heroes throughout the book – for bravery, persistence, patriotism, loyalty, and any number of gallant acts our American boys performed in that war. But she focuses on one hero in particular – Louie Zamperini – and the way his life was especially changed by his wartime experiences. Throughout the book, it was easy to pinpoint the parts that comprised two thirds of the subtitle: survival and resilience. But I kept wondering where redemption would come in and what part it would play.
And then, the war ended and the book was still not over. Again, this was a pleasant surprise. Last summer I read a fantastic WWII memoir, a book I was so pleased with that I ended up giving it to my dad for his birthday the following month. But I was disappointed when I reached the end of the book and got no information about what happened when this heroic soldier returned home. Nothing about how he coped with life after the war. Nothing about the family he ended up forming with the woman he ended up marrying. Nothing. Just a blasé, the-war-is-over, happily ever after.
But Unbroken does not make that mistake, and all my questions about where redemption fit in were answered at last, in the final 70-ish pages of the narrative.
I’m not going to give away much more because the read is truly thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. But I will say that Louie is a character to root for, and after reading Unbroken, I feel like I know him, even though I don’t. I’m sure most readers feel this way, but I feel it especially so because he reminds me so much of an author I worked with at my last job, Rudy Leeman. Rudy was 80- or 90-something years old, and he had so much fire and spunk left in him. And his book, For Everything a Season, was a beautiful (albeit very long) history of his family’s journey to the States. Rudy was one of the authors who made it difficult to leave my last job. I wish I’d had the opportunity to meet him in person. But the account of Louie Zamperini in Unbroken brought Rudy back to my memory, and my reminiscence made me feel closer to both of them.
One final word on Laura Hillenbrand. In her (very long) acknowledgments, located at the back of the book (this is a newer trend that I really like), she mentions more than once being “too sick” to go or do something specifically related to the research of the book. She never goes into detail about why she was sick or what with, so I found this odd. But then, I did some poking around on the Internet and found out that (apparently) she has CFS, which some more poking led me to discover stands for chronic fatigue syndrome. From what I can tell from cursory research, this is a disease that appears to be very much like my understanding of fibromyalgia, at least with regard to how debilitating and life limiting it is.
I only mention this because this book project would’ve been enormous, for anyone. An undertaking of this magnitude must have taken her a couple of years at least, if not longer, to finish. She obviously sifted through volumes upon volumes of research, materials, and resources, and it is nothing short of impressive that she has woven together the seamless-feeling account that she has. It is every writer’s dream to be able to connect details, transition scenes, and rivet readers as flawlessly as Hillenbrand does – all the while telling someone else’s story – and the amount of effort she put in, if not made obvious in the first 400 pages, will manifest itself in the form of her 50-page notes section and her 12-page index.
So the fact that she battled CFS while working on this project and still came out with a product that is better than most healthy writers is just proof that this woman truly has a gift. And thirsty readers like myself reap all the benefits.
So if you have about 48 spare hours lying around (probably less, for the average reader; I tend to read at a slower pace than most), do yourself a favor and pick up Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. I got it from the library, but I would not have regretted purchasing it and fully expect to read it again in the future.