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The 'Unbroken' Spirit Of An Ordinary Hero

Laura Hillenbrand is shaping up to be the Woody Guthrie of contemporary narrative historians. It's not just that she has an affinity for singing the ballads of dark horses, who through tenacity, luck and a lot of heart turn themselves into folk legends. It's also that Hillenbrand has a gift for recovering the spirit of mid-20th century America -- its despair, sure, but also its humor and its graceful refusal to put on airs. Seabiscuit, of course, was an almost impossible act to follow, but as Hillenbrand says in the acknowledgements to her new book, Unbroken, she knew she had found her next subject when she spoke to a then-octogenarian Louis Zamperini on the phone and the wisecracking spirit of that bygone age came through loud and clear: "I'll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit," Zamperini said, "because I can talk."

He sure can and sure did -- for seven years' worth of interviews with Hillenbrand. The tale Zamperini has to tell, augmented by mountains of diaries, letters and official documents, is a stunner. Zamperini's story, in a nutshell, is this: He was born in 1917, a son of working-class Italian immigrants who made a life for themselves in Torrance, Calif. Louie was a juvenile delinquent from the get-go, always stealing food from neighbors' houses and concocting homemade explosives. Louie's older brother saved him by forcing him to try out for track in high school; all those years of scampering from the cops turned out to be excellent training, and Louie eventually competed in the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens. Hitler even gave Louie a congratulatory nod.

When World War II broke out, Zamperini joined the air corps as a lieutenant stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to operate the bombsight on a B-24, an unwieldy plane known to flight crews as "The Flying Coffin." His pilot, Russell Allen Phillips -- known as "Phil" -- was respected as "a damn swell pilot" by the other men, and Hillenbrand vividly describes a few knuckle-biting bombing missions in which Phillips' skill nursed the injured plane back to base, sans brakes or fuel. But Zamperini's and Phillips' luck ran out on May 27, 1943, when, on a rescue mission in the middle of the Pacific, an engine died and their plane went down, killing everybody onboard but Zamperini, Phillips and a guy named "Mac," the tail gunner.

For a record 47 days, the men floated on two, then one, rubber raft. Sharks circled constantly, scraping their fins under the bottom of the rafts. Water came, when it did, from the skies; food consisted of raw fish and a couple of unwary albatrosses that alighted on the rafts. They were strafed by a Japanese fighter; thrown into a typhoon. The men lost half their body weight, and drifted for some 2,000 miles on open water. Mac didn't make it; the other two men survived to become prisoners of the Japanese -- subjected to starvation, torture and slave labor. Because of his Olympic fame, Zamperini became the special target of a sadistic Japanese corporal who dedicated himself to shattering Zamperini's spirit.

Hillenbrand writes here with authority and her distinctive sensual intensity: You smell the stink of the maggoty fish the prisoners of war were forced to eat; you feel the horror of the void out on that raft. But Unbroken aims for something beyond vicarious secondhand suffering. Through the lens of Zamperini's story, Hilllenbrand explores how people fight to preserve their essential selfhood -- their dignity -- in the most extreme circumstances. She describes how the prisoners of war fought back against their captors: stealing newspapers to find out news of the war; passing gas when they were forced to bow to the emperor. She gives ample space to the home front, too: the everyday courage of Zamperini's mother, who refused to believe he was dead; his father and brother, who schemed to buy a boat after the war and search every island in the Pacific until they found him.

Louie Zamperini is still with us. He even ran with the torch at the Olympics in 1998 in Japan. He has lived on into an age where we're more skeptical about heroes. Inspiration is considered an attribute of "middlebrow" popular literature, not the highbrow stuff. Maybe that's why, as I couldn't help but notice, The New York Times buried its review of Hillenbrand's moving and, yes, inspirational book deep in the middle of the Sunday Book Review.

Don't let the cynics intimidate you. Zamperini's story -- and Hillenbrand's unforgettable new book -- deserve pride of place alongside the best works of literature that chart the complications and the hard-won triumphs of so-called ordinary Americans and their extraordinary time.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.
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