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Cannonball Read III: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

By Cruzich | Books | October 5, 2011 |

By Cruzich | Books | October 5, 2011 |

Unbreakable by Laura Hillenbrand is a biography of Louie Zamperini, an Olympic runner turned soldier who spent most of World War II in Japanese POW camps after surviving for weeks on a life raft after his plane was shot down over the Pacific. His is the kind of life that, if you saw a movie version of it, there is no way you’d believe it was real. You know, running in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, fighting off sharks with his bare hands while drifting on a life raft in the Pacific for weeks, months of indescribably horrific, sadistic and dehumanizing treatment at the hands of Japanese officers, a post-war conversion during a Billy Graham tent revivial, skateboarding in his 80s; just normal stuff like that.

The book was a riveting read, because Hillenbrand (best known for writing Seabiscuit: An American Legend) is smart enough to get out of the way and just tell Zamperini’s story. The thing is, though, I can’t tell if that was a conscious decision or if she isn’t actually that great of a writer. There are many passages in the book that read like barely re-worded quotes from Zamperini, who she interviewed seventy-five times over a seven-year period; I feel a little strange dinging her for the “crime” of letting her interview subject come through, considering how often we read about authors fabricating their non-fiction characters’ inner lives, but the fact is I want a bit of analysis along with my non-fiction narrative (no matter how incredible), and this book doesn’t deliver that.

Overall, though, it’s a minor quibble. This is a page turner, filled with moments both sublime and ridiculous—sometimes both—and it’s the first in-depth look I know of into the life of American POWs during WWII (and, therefore, is not for the squeamish or those with an aversion to violence and/or in-depth descriptions of what happens to a person when their dysentery goes untreated). If it doesn’t rise to the heights of great non-fiction, it certainly entertains and amazes. Definitely recommended.

For more of Cruzich’s musings, check out his blog, The Dilettante’s Dilemma.

This review is part of Cannonball Read III. For more information, click here.

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