Laura's Reviews > Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
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Feb 04, 14

bookshelves: tigard-library, non-fiction, somehow-usc-related, running, military
Read in May, 2011

Wow am I in the minority.

I absolutely loved Seabiscuit, so I expected great things from this one. However, where Seabiscuit focused narrowly on a small set of characters and events, this was more sprawling, bursting with a poorly-sketched cast of characters who, over time, became nearly indistinguishable. For most of the middle section, the book wore me down with its unrelenting catalogue of abuse and privation. On a related note, I wasn't crazy about the fact that the book endlessly described what was happening to Zamperini, as opposed to what was going through his mind, what gave him hope, etc.--material that I would have found infinitely more interesting.

As other reviewers have noted, although listed as non-fiction, the book suffers from potentially unreliable narration, as most details were reported to the author some 50 years after the fact. After that long, memories of events dim or, conversely, are embellished. Indeed, some details felt a bit off to me (for instance, Zamperini described being tangled up in wires and going down with his plane when he blacked out; he was miraculously free of all encumbrances when he came to). A huge detail that seemed off was Zamperini's redemption at the end: it didn't make sense to me that Zamperini's problems with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and rage, fueled by years of the aforementioned abuse and privation, were all completely and conveniently cured by a couple of hours listening to the preaching of Billy Graham. (To be honest, I thought this plot point tends to demean veterans' struggles generally.)

But the book moved along at a brisk pace and held my attention. I feel like I learned a lot about an aspect of American and WWII history that may be overlooked (the experiences of POWs in Japan was never covered in any of my high school or college history classes). So for that I give this book an enthusiastic 3 stars.
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Reading Progress

05/02/2011 page 115
23.0%
05/03/2011 page 115
23.0% "Feels a little...surface-y. Not quite living up to expectations."
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 68) (68 new)


Christy Tiffin Agree with Laura - expected so much, started well then sort of lost my interest. Finished it grudgingly.


message 2: by Kelley (new)

Kelley I totally agree


Keith MacKinnon I generally agree with your sentiments, but allowed for 4 stars. It is hard to distinguish between “I liked it” and “I really liked it”. This book is worth reading and I expect most will not read a book with an average of three stars.


Sophie Memories from war never leave the person. Most of them are as vivid to the survivors as if they happened yesterday. What does suface-y mean anyway??


Laura Hi Sophie. I respect that you probably have a very different opinion about this book--considering the average rating on it, it's evident that most people do, in fact.
When I picked up the book, I had hoped for something that not only told the details of Zamperini's story, but also placed that story within a greater, deeper, context; I found myself disappointed on that front.
And, we can agree to disagree on the reliability of memory (especially the recall of details both great and small), but the events described took place decades after very heavily emotional events. I therefore chose to take certain points with a grain of salt.


message 6: by Laura (last edited Mar 03, 2012 10:32PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Laura Also: "surface-y" wasn't part of my review, so I wasn't trying to make it sound intelligent at the time. If I had been, I would have used the word "superficial." I think the superficiality of the characters was part of the reason I (and this is, once again, just my own experience) had such a difficult time distinguishing among them.


David Maybe Louie should have asked the Japanese guards for a notebook so he could write everything down so that 65 years later people would be satisfied at the level of detail he was able to provide regarding his torture and starvation.


Laura Such a snotty and sarcastic response to a genuine concern I had about the contents of a non-fiction history book. In non-fiction, I expect precision; our memories, especially the recall of events a half-century after the fact, are imprecise. Other reviewers have made similar comments: see http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... and http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/....

So, what would I have appreciated? I would have liked a more varied selection of sources. And, yeah, I stand by what I said in the review: I find it very unlikely that an angry alcoholic man, suffering from severe PTSD, recovered from his emotional trauma and gave up his addiction cold turkey that easily and without any ill effects. Louis Zamperini's an amazing guy who suffered and survived inhuman, horrifying abuse--but I had to take that part of his account, in particular, with a grain of salt.


Laura Also: I felt that the notion of PTSD being cured by a couple days of preaching does a disservice to the large number of veterans who suffer from its effects and need support.


David Laura wrote: "Such a snotty and sarcastic response to a genuine concern I had about the contents of a non-fiction history book. In non-fiction, I expect precision; our memories, especially the recall of events ..."

The first biography of Zamperini was published in 1956, there was another biography published in the 1980s, there have been dozens of magazine and newspaper articles, television interviews and accounts in other books about Zamperini, and many corroborating accounts by other soldiers over the last 65 years so the idea that Hillenbrand is relying on the memory of a 90 year old man is pretty specious.


Laura So in your first criticism of my review, you say that "Maybe Louie should have asked the Japanese guards for a notebook so he could write everything down so that 65 years later people would be satisfied..." indicating that many of the book's details do rely primarily on Zamperini's recollections. Now, in your response, you're claiming that Zamperini's recent memories weren't actually all that essential. I say you can't have it both ways.

Hillenbrand's personal interviews with Zamperini were indeed cited in the book as the source of many of the details. And I maintain that a number of those details (as per the reviews I linked to) seemed so over the top as to have provoked skepticism.

I'm not going to have an argument on here, so this is my last word on the issue.


Redpoint I agree wholeheartedly with your criticisms of the book. It seems like some people think of it as a sacred cow.


Kristin I am a little shocked that you wanted a more varied list of sources. I read the bibliography/appendix yesterday and was astounded at the breadth her research. She literally read everything that could be read- from military reports, various newspapers, various individuals' journals, letters between individuals. Louie also kept a journal in POW prison as did others (so he DID have a notebook!). She interviewed dozens of people. Also, unless a person has dementia, the type of memory loss experienced by the elderly is short term memory loss. (I am a cognitive therapist.) So I really think Louie's interviews were more reliable than you think.


Richard Truth, emotional truth, and traumatic recall. I was in an auto accident that almost killed me. My memory of the event doesn't correspond to any of the facts. I can suspect that Louis' account of the plane crash may contain elements of traumatic recall. I'm willing to let that slide.

The extent of detail of the prison camp is astounding, and I don't know how much poetic license Ms. Hillenbrand allowed herself. I wouldn't be surprised if there's some there, and if there is it may be an attempt at emotional truth, e.g., in my memory it felt like he hit me 17 times. I don't know what to make of that. I must admit I took the account at face value until your review raised the issue. And, it is an important issue - but like I said, I don't know what to make of it.

I have personal experience of walking into an AA meeting after more than two decades of alcoholic drinking and walking out whole. No problem with that, especially because Louis' excessive drinking didn't last that long. The PTSD is a horse of another color, but Louis was a strong guy, his survival is testament to that, so maybe he could have met redemption that quickly. I must say I was shocked at how quickly we moved from story to Epilogue - so I wonder what was left out.

Anyway, thanks for raising the issues.


message 15: by Pat (new) - rated it 5 stars

Pat The unrelenting catalog of abuse and privation is what it is about. That he remained Unbroken through it all.


Shawn Brace Thanks for your review. I found the book to be truly inspiring and thought her primary research to be good (using diaries, official records, etc. to independently verify Zamperini's recall). As a Christian pastor, your uneasiness with his "instant" conversion resonates with me, but I have also seen that very same dynamic happen time and time again with people who respond to God. As you said, it is hard for a non-religious person to understand this, but there is power in the gospel message (whatever one wants to chalk it up to) to change lives in a moment.

Thanks again for the review!!


message 17: by Gwen (new) - rated it 5 stars

Gwen Haaland I can believe the instant conversion only because of the sudden revelation/memory of praying in the raft. Louis suddenly remembered his powerful promise to God if he should ever survive what had seemed to be impending death. Belief in a higher power was his only hope for keeping his beloved wife and child. He felt his destiny change in an instant with a newfound reason to live...


Joshua James I had exactly the same thoughts while reading this book, the very same doubts and questions, and in particular the easy intervention of religion and forgiveness at the end; just the sort of thing that will get this made into an Oscar hopeful, ASAP. I don't know. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, but when it was over my skepticism rusted all my opinions. I was going to write my own review, but yours hit the nail on the head with everything I wanted to say.


message 19: by Roxy (new) - rated it 1 star

Roxy I am only 55 pages into this book and I already agree. It feels like the auther is blathering on about unimportant details and I have a hard time finding them believable due to the way she presents them.


message 20: by Bill (new) - rated it 5 stars

Bill Hall Re: Louie's conversion.

As a born-again Christian, attendee at some Graham crusades, and former pastor, I find that Louie,s conversion experience and the power of God to immediately and completely heal are authentic. First, the point of spiritual struggle during the altar call is common for those resisting the pull of the Spirit. Then, the seemingly immediate cleansing of the soul from behaviors and attitudes. Laura Hillenbrand treats the conversion with sensitivity and accuracy.

Not everyone who undergoes conversion has so complete a regeneration experience, but Louie's experience, as described, is genuine. It seems that people with larger issues often have greater regeneration experiences.

I'm not surprised that non-religious people who don't have many born-again friends have trouble believing this part of the book. But, their lack of experience doesnt mean that Louie's regeneration was not authentic.


message 21: by Jane (new) - rated it 1 star

Jane I am looking through all of these reviews trying to find someone who agrees with me and you're as close as I could find. I am only 60 pages into the book but I am not enjoying it AT ALL. I agree that it feels like a description of what is happening to him rather getting inside his head and it all seems so boring so far. I really want to stop reading it but it is for a book club and so many people seemed to love it that I feel obligated to finish it. I suspect that I will regret that I didn't cut my losses if I do read it though. Every page feels like a slog. Will I regret it if I quit reading it or if I don't quit reading it?


Laura Jane wrote: "I am looking through all of these reviews trying to find someone who agrees with me and you're as close as I could find. I am only 60 pages into the book but I am not enjoying it AT ALL. I agree ..."

It's been a long time since I read this book, but I remember clearly that the beginning was actually my favorite part.

Once the war starts, the story changes quite a bit, so maybe your opinion will change if you keep reading. You're only 60 pages in, though, so if you do decide to finish, you're in for a long slog.


message 23: by Jane (new) - rated it 1 star

Jane Thank you for writing back, Laura. I slept on it and with your comment I decided to give up on it. I feel immediate relief and I'm happy that I can start a book that I will enjoy! Thank you for saving me from the long slog!


Laura Glad I could help! I probably didn't make you any friends in your book club though. :)


Katalin I agree. Makes me wonder if all the stars are for the political and Christian issues discussed in the book of for the book itself. I was just bored reading it. I felt it didn't give anything new about the topic that hadn't already been written down in many much better books.


message 26: by Jane (new) - rated it 1 star

Jane Katalin wrote: "I agree. Makes me wonder if all the stars are for the political and Christian issues discussed in the book of for the book itself. I was just bored reading it. I felt it didn't give anything new ab..."

Thanks Katalin. I feel so much less alone! I didn't even get to the political and Christian issues yet but I seriously suspect that it would have made the book worse for me not better!


message 27: by Roxy (new) - rated it 1 star

Roxy If anyone is interested, Louis Zamperini did write his own book about his experience. I have not read it but one can only hope it is far better then this one.

Devil at My Heels: A Heroic Olympian's Astonishing Story of Survival as a Japenese POW in WWII


Chantal Laura, your review perfectly sums up most of my thoughts on the book. It wasn't something I would normally pick, but I joined a book club (very last minute) and had a day to read this. A lot of my issues or concerns with the book and the narrative are things you addressed.

While I am sure that Billy Graham had a positive impact on him, I too found it slightly negative to others who haven't been able to let go and embrace God and religion in the way that Louie did. PTSD is a serious issue, not just for veterans but many who have experienced traumatic events. The book made it seem as if that religious experience "cured" him, as his nightmares stopped as did his drinking and anger. But while this helped him, I don't view religion as a cure for PTSD. I can see it helping, but the book seemed to go beyond that - that it was a complete cure.

I did find his life and experiences interesting, as I to did not know much about POW's in Japan. Despite my issues with the book I do admire Louie and think it amazing all he loved through and overcame.

But thanks for the review, andnsorry you had to deal with some of the more negative posters.... :)


message 29: by Joe (new) - rated it 4 stars

Joe Not really sure how you could tell a story about someone who fought and was captured in WWII without it being so broad. Seabiscuit isn't WWII, so comparing the narrowness of that to something as big as WWIi and expecting it to be the same is a little odd, in my opinion.


message 30: by Peter (last edited Mar 01, 2013 04:48AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Peter Larson Laura: I'm not sure we even read the same book. The author spent a lot of time describing what Louis Zamperini was thinking and how it eventually led him to faith in Christ after the war ended. Not sure what you mean about the characters being indistinguishable. True, it is hard to read about all the suffering he endured, but it is important to know what our veterans endured and the depth of cruelty and darkness that we, as human beings, are capable of perpetrating. This book is a wonderful corrective to the modern view that the human race is basically good and that there is no such thing as evil.


message 31: by Anna (new) - rated it 5 stars

Anna I'm not at all religious, but it didn't make sense to me that Zamperini's problems with alcoholism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and rage, fueled by years of the aforementioned abuse and privation, were all completely and conveniently cured by a couple of hours listening to the preaching of Billy Graham.
That's just what Jesus can do in a person's life :)


Jesse Cozean Laura,

Love your review of this book. I felt some of the same disconnect when reading it - an incredible story, but didn't seem to pack the emotional punch it should have. I wasn't overly concerned about some of the seeming-contradictions of the book (sometimes those are inevitable in books like this, based on memory and hazy with distance). My grandfather was a POW in Europe, so it was fascinating to see the similarities and differences of Nazi and Japanese prison camps.

Jesse Cozean
Author, My Grandfather's War: A Young Man's Lessons from the Greatest Generation


message 33: by Judy (new)

Judy This is a GREAT discussion and I love the back and forth of opinion and response. What I particularly enjoy is the intelligence of most of the comment/response. I did marvel at the amount of detail Ms.H. put into the book, but let it slide as the horror of the story washed over me. And as to Zamperini's conversion, as a believing Christian, I know that is totally possible and miraculously wonderful. But again, if one is not a Christian, I can understand why this seems unbelievable. Again, thanks for the fine back and forth.


Jesse Cozean Judy wrote: "This is a GREAT discussion and I love the back and forth of opinion and response. What I particularly enjoy is the intelligence of most of the comment/response. I did marvel at the amount of deta..."

Thanks Judy - I'm new to GoodReads, but also love the discussion, especially by knowledgeable people. Always good to remember that some books strike us differently depending on our unique histories, perspectives, and likes. Books often change for me depending on when I read them - I'll like a book a lot more or less when I revisit it a few years later. I'm glad you are enjoying the discussions!

Jesse Cozean


message 35: by Judy (new)

Judy Jesse! So you like David James Duncan!!! One of my ALL TIME FAV. authors. Have you read Leif Enger's (?), Peace Like A River? I would really like your take on it. And bless you for loving histories, biographies, etc. JW


Jesse Cozean Hey Judy,

Love David James Duncan! I actually went to college with his nephew, and he was the guest speaker on my college visit there. He was a huge influence on me - just the joy that he writes with, especially in The River Why and River Teeth, when he's just playing around with words.

Really enjoy Leif as a writer, both Peace Like a River and So Brave, Young, and Handsome - can't recommend Peace Like a River enough.

Jesse Cozean


message 37: by Judy (new)

Judy Wow. I think we may be kindred spirits, book-wise, and I am old enough to be your mom. In my years of teaching high school English I was blessed with a few students with your love of and attitude towards literature. I will be getting River Teeth tomorrow since I have not read it. What is more delightful than playing with words. And PLAR quickly soared into my favorites list. I used to read aloud that last section where the father swims in the river of life, and I could NEVER get through it without tears flowing all over my face. I am choked up just thinking of it now. whew Have you ever read, Silence, by Endo? This book will grip your heart and twist it into places you never thought it could go. I would love to get more book ideas from you. I am quite sure you have read Duncan's, The Brothers K. Blessings.


Jesse Cozean Judy wrote: "Wow. I think we may be kindred spirits, book-wise, and I am old enough to be your mom. In my years of teaching high school English I was blessed with a few students with your love of and attitude..."

You're in for a treat - my copy of River Teeth is so battered and beaten-down it's almost unrecognizable and is my favorite of all Duncan's work. I didn't enjoy the Brother's K as much as I would have hoped; I couldn't dislike anything by such a good writer, but it certainly didn't make my "best of" list.

It's awesome to find someone with the same tastes, and I'm hoping to get some other good recommendations from you - I'll have to take a look at Silence. One of the only downsides of writing is less reading time, so I'm hoping to make up for some of the time I've missed!

Jesse Cozean

P.S. I wish I had a high-school English teacher to assign me some of these books, our curriculum left something to be desired, to put it mildly.


message 39: by Judy (last edited Sep 17, 2012 06:17PM) (new)

Judy Some of my students' favorites , in addition to PLAR, were, of course To Kill a Mockingbird, Silence, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Outsiders (for the "non"-readers), Lord of the Flies, The Count of Monte Cristo, Same Kind of Different as Me, and Hamlet (yup! they loved it---never underestimate teens!). "Unfortunately" I had to teach some grammar and writing (which I loved teaching, actually). If you enjoy reading Lincoln literature may I recommend, "Killing Lincoln" by Bill O'Reilly (yes, THAT guy) and American Brutus, by Kauffman. I am now reading, Bonhoeffer, by Metaxas. PLEASE let me know your current reads. I went through a Chaim Potok phase and still love his work. And I actually really like some Stephen King, esp, The Stand, and, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Wow. Sorry for all the verbiage. Oh yes, and Grisham has three amazing reads: Bleachers , A Painted House and Calico Joe, all using sports metaphors for layers of meaning . I would LOVE to read what you have written. Blessings, JW


Jesse Cozean Some great books on that list - I loved Bonhoeffer's autobiography, Stephen King's The Green Mile was incredible (one of the last books to make me cry), and I also like Grisham's Ford County, his only book of short stories.

Other good books in that vein that I've enjoyed: Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini), What is the What (David Eggers), A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving). I love anything and everything by C.S. Lewis, and my tastes also run into more scientific books (Malcolm Gladwell, Robert Sapolsky).

My first book came out in February of this year, My Grandfather's War, the true story of my grandfather's capture at the Battle of the Bulge and imprisonment in a Nazi POW camp, as told to me while he was recovering from open-heart surgery. I hope you'll take a look (though I'm worried you'll find and mark up grammar mistakes that my editor missed!)

Jesse Cozean


message 41: by Judy (new)

Judy Thanks, Jesse. I just ordered your book from Amazon. Looks REALLY good. I have read Kite Runner and What is the What. LIke you I am fascinated by any and ALL CS Lewis books. Have you ever seen the film, "Shadowlands", about Lewis and his wife Joy? Starring Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger, the film includes much of his fine thinking about prayer and trust. I used to show it to my seniors after a Lewis unit which included Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters and some of his essays. Superior stuff. I feel almost embarrassed about the fact that I have never read, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I am right now re-reading some of the classics. As you said, so many books strike one differently when read during another season of life. Oh, and don't be concerned about grammar glitches in your book. First, you probably had an excellent editor and second, I am not the grammar "Nazi" that I once was. And oh,yes, The Green MIle was amazing and touching as could be. Blessings, Judy


Sarah N How does Zamperini becoming a Christian demean veterans' struggles? That was HIS experience, and it's just as valid as anyone else's. I'm not sure how familiar you actually are with veterans, but though they all have similar struggles, they do NOT have similar experiences when it comes to recovery. It doesn't demean anyone for one veteran to have a sudden breakthrough as opposed to taking years to recover.


message 43: by Judy (new)

Judy Jesse. Just got your book in the mail. I am starting to read it....NOW!


Jesse Cozean Hey Judy,

That's fantastic - I hope you like it! I'm eager to hear your thoughts when you finish.

Jesse Cozean


message 45: by Judy (new)

Judy Hi Jesse. I finished your book many days ago and I LOVED it. Your grandfather's story is such an important one and I hope people will never forget what he and men like him did for our country. I really like your writing style, clear, funny when appropriate and so interesting. You are a very talented writer and I am so glad I found your book. Judy


Jesse Cozean Hey Judy,

Thanks! I'm so glad (and relieved) that you enjoyed it. Sorry it's taken me so long to respond, but I've been travelling pretty heavily the last few weeks. Please stay in touch, I'd love to hear any other recommendations that you might have. And, of course, a nice review and rating is always helpful :)

Jesse Cozean
My Grandfather's War


message 47: by Judy (new)

Judy Oh I would give your book my highest rating. My best friend, a history buff and English professor, is reading it right now and wonders when your next book is coming. It is really good stuff, Jesse, and you are incredibly talented! Judy


Petra SockieX I enjoyed reading your review. I loved the book though.


message 49: by Lee (new) - rated it 5 stars

Lee Very interesting divergence of opinion on a book that, for me, was spellbinding. Funny how you can think something is the greatest story ever told, and someone else will drop it after 60 pages. To each his own, as it should be.

One comment suggesting that the positive reviews were probably just religiously and politically motivated did bother me, however. Count me as one example of someone who is not religious at all (and actually lives in and loves Japan), but still gave the book 5 stars.


Trish You truly believe that because it was fifty years later that these Prisoners of War have dim recollections of what happened to them? These weren't just run of the mill days for these people. This was a hell they had to try to endure with fleeting hope of rescue. These are men who watched their friends suffer on massive scales and had to mourn while they were beaten and tortured. There is no way memories of those experiences would dim and lose detail. I am shocked that anyone would think otherwise. Having a baby, sure you might forget a few details, but traumatic events, they stick with you forever with such vivid detail it is tormenting for the rest of your life.


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