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A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

A-UnbrokenIn the best-selling Seabiscuit: An American Legend (2001), Laura Hillenbrand explored the career of the famous racehorse Seabiscuit. Here, in her second book, she uses her same storytelling skills to relate the life story of Louis S. Zamperini (now 93), a World War II prisoner of war who later became an inspirational speaker and published his own memoir, Devil at My Heels (1956; 2003).

The Topic: In May 1943, a rickety B-24 carrying the 26-year-old Louie Zamperini went down over the Pacific. For seven weeks, Zamperini and his pilot barely survived on a raft. When they finally sighted land, more travails awaited: they were picked up by Japanese soldiers and sent to prison camps, where, for the next two years, Zamperini was tortured and subjected to humiliation, slave labor, starvation, and disease. Hillerbrand, positing Zamperini as a hero, retells his remarkable life story, from his days as a juvenile delinquent in Torrance, California, to his stint as a world-class runner (he ran the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Berlin Olympics) before he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. "The same attributes that had made him the boy terror of Torrance," Hillenbrand contends--defiance, daring, and resiliencet--"[sustained] him in the greatest struggle of his life."
Random House. 496 pages. $27. ISBN: 9781400064168

Oregonian HHHHJ
"So completely has the author of Seabiscuit placed herself at the service of her subject that, in contrast to so much currently fashionable in nonfiction, it is not even until page 399 that the word ‘I' first appears, and then mainly to acknowledge the many people including Zamperini himself whose confrontations with their memories and memorabilia enabled her to share with the reader the World War II experiences that no one should have had to live through once, let alone twice. ... She has written a work of art." Elinor Langer

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"The ideal way to read Unbroken would be with absolutely no knowledge of how Mr. Zamperini's life unfolded. Ms. Hillenbrand has written her book so breathlessly, and with such tight focus, that she makes it difficult to guess what will happen to him from one moment to the next, let alone how long he was able to survive under extreme duress." Janet Maslin

Salon 4 of 5 Stars
"It's simpler to write about an animal than a human being, it's true, and the deepest enigmas in Zamperini's story remain unplumbed by Hillenbrand. But will you be able to put the thing down once you poke your nose into it? You will not." Laura Miller

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Hillenbrand ... seems drawn to underdogs who must struggle against extreme adversity, and in Zamperini she has found an example even pluckier than the little racehorse that could. ... [Her] heavy reliance on personal reminiscence does have drawbacks; Hillenbrand presents as fact a few too many stories that seem like family legend." Gary Krist

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Apart from a rocky beginning (when, seeming to lack confidence in her main character, she hypes him), she is intelligent and restrained, and wise enough to let the story unfold for itself. ... In only one sense does it disappoint, but it's important: that is, in its portrait of the hero himself." David Margolick

Wall Street Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Many readers may wish that Ms. Hillenbrand had dwelt more on the man she has known for seven years. She doesn't show us much of the hero in repose or illuminate how his wartime trials look to him in the sunset years." James D. Hornfischer

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"[Hillenbrand is] still a historian, and she gives this story a chronological structure that frankly gets a little plodding (you have to wade through 130 pages of Zamperini's childhood before his bomber crashes and the plot kicks in). ... Unbroken [is] a good book, sometimes even a profound book, but it's probably not going to be anybody's favorite book." Benjamin Svetkey

Critical Summary

Most critics made the inevitable between Seabiscuit and Unbroken, noting that although the protagonists differ (one couldn't speak, after all), the stories follow roughly the same narrative trajectory and offer beautifully written, dramatic tales of overcoming adversity. Yet even those who admitted Unbroken is nothing but riveting offered criticism. Perhaps most serious, a few critics thought that, despite Hillenbrand's 75 interviews with Zamperini, she failed to dig below the surface of his legendary memories. Unbroken is "a wasted opportunity to break new psychological ground," noted the New York Times Book Review--which some reviewers defended as a result of the passage of time. In the end, most agreed with the Oregonian's conclusion: "It is hard to decide which aspect of Unbroken is more remarkable--Louis Zamperini's life story or Laura Hillenbrand's telling of it."