I think most of you know I love WWII novels, particularly ones depicting true stories. So why did it take me so long to read this one? Well, the book, which I got at SIBA in 2010, was a little chunky-looking. Then I heard that the audio was good, so I put my name on the waiting list at the library and it took me over four months to get it. All decent excuses, I guess. But shame on me that it took Books, Babes and Bordeaux to force me to read it. Ultimately, this will be one of the best books I've read all year.
Synopsis: Louis Zamperini didn't start out his life looking like someone who would eventually be one of America's great heroes. As a youth, he was troubled, leading the life of a petty thief and vandal. But when his older brother encouraged him to join the high school track team, Louis found a positive outlet for all that energy. Truly a talented runner, Louis went on to be one of the youngest long-distance Olympic athletes at the time, and competed in the 1936 Berlin games. He went from miscreant to a hometown star, and his family was proud. This alone would have been a compelling story.
Louis then enlisted in the Air Force in WWII, and was deployed to Hawaii as a bombardier. In May 1943, his plane went down in the Pacific, killing 8 of the 11 crew members. For 47 days, the three survivors lived on a raft, drinking rainwater and eating birds and fish, despite the elements, aggressive, circling sharks, and Japanese planes that attempted to shoot them. One of the men eventually died, and Louis and his pilot were then picked up by Japanese soldiers, and imprisoned in a POW camp.
For two and a half years, the men were held prisoner in conditions barely survivable...they were starved, forced to work 18 hours a day, and dehumanized. Probably the worst aspect of their years in the camp, however, was the camp's leader, named "The Bird", who was one of the war's most unbalanced, sadistic tormentors. After Louis was liberated by the Americans, he suffered extreme PTSD and alcoholism, with The Bird haunting his dreams. It was only when Louis discovered Billy Graham did he embrace Christianity and forgive those who had harmed him. He went on to become an inspirational speaker and an advocate for troubled boys. He is alive today at the age of 94.
My thoughts: I am not normally in the habit of going into such detail on a book's plot. I like to keep it short and to the point. But what part of this man's life do you leave out? Any one facet of Louis's life would be biography-worthy, but in aggregate it is almost beyond comprehension. It made me close my eyes and PRAY that this wasn't another example of embellished bullshittery like "A Million Little Pieces" or "Three Cups of Tea". Based on what I've Googled (and I would encourage you to do this...it is a treasure trove of articles, pictures and videos) it appears to be authentic.
A couple of themes really hit me hard. First, Louis makes a statement that he would have rather gone back to the raft, where he had to deal with sharks, the elements, and reliance on mother nature for food, than to stay in the POW camps. He states that dehumanization will break a person long before starvation and isolation. I'm sure this explains why his soul suffered long after the war because of the atrocities committed by The Bird. But it is a thought-provoking dictum on human nature.
Secondly, Louis's return to Jesus Christ, after his tormented struggles with depression, alcoholism and anger, was devastatingly heart-rending for me. This transformation saved Louis's marriage and his life. Forgiveness is a miraculous healer of souls. Lest you think this story turns into a preachy God lesson, please know that it is subtle and a small part of the overall story. It was just that part that brought me to tears.
I did bristle at a couple of statements made by Hillenbrand, that were brought to my attention in Marie's review. Particularly, statistics are quoted that imply Japanese prison camps were deadlier for Americans than the Fascist camps. Perhaps they were - I am sure she can account for her numbers. But to me it minimized the horrors wrought on humanity by the Nazis and Soviets, and thought it was in poor taste.
Beyond this complaint, however, I would recommend this book to anyone. It is truly a testament to the human spirit.
A word about the audio production: Our narrator for this audio was Edward Herrman, a gentleman who has significant experience in the business but is a new voice for me. While his vocalizations were not all that dramatic, he was pleasant to listen to and soundly delivered the goods.
5 out of 5 stars