Mar 09, 11
Read in March, 2011
I would be surprised if this book weren't in my top 5 at the end of 2011.
Hillenbrand tells the biography of Louis Zamperini, a life of fairly distinct phases, each of which would seem to be amazing adventures by themselves. Louis began as a energetic petty thief but reformed when his speed was focused on the running track. From there he set college records for the mile and competed in the 1936 Olympics, meeting Hitler in Berlin. Enough story for you? But then WWII begins and Louis is off to the Pacific as a bombardier for a B-24. (He runs a mile at 4:08 on the sands of Hawaii.) His plane crashes and there are only three survivors out in open sea. They are surrounded by sharks and the life rafts are not yet supplied with more than a flare gun, some tins of water and a few squares of chocolate. The harrowing weeks on the life raft are themselves an epic story, but for Zamperini, just a prelude to the story to come. As a POW under Japanese control, Louis suffers terribly, even before he meets the monstrous Mutsuhiro Watanabe, who would be hunted as a war criminal at the end of the hostilities. Even after the war, the story continues as Hillenbrand tells of how Louis learned to adjust to civilian life and deal with the horrors he suffered through.
The prose is exquisite. Each chapter unfolds like a short story, with just enough of a hook at the end to keep you from putting the book down. Hillenbrand has a great sense of proportion, explaining technical details about planes and military deaths, but always keeping things at a human scale. Similarly, what does it mean to say the 37% of American POWs died in Japanese camps? Well, only 1% died in Nazi camps -- relevant perspective is always there.
The history is well documented with pages of citations in the back. I don't mean this as faint praise, but Hillenbrand makes brilliant use of a few footnotes; she knows when there are extraneous facts that the reader will appreciate, but she holds them back from the main text so that the story remains focused and lean.