I’m sure I’m not the only person to read Unbroken, the biography of Louis Zamperini, following the release of the movie by the same name, but I may have been one of the only people who was totally unaware of the amazing story of this man’s survival through over 40 days at sea, and years in a POW camp, during World War II. If you don’t know Zamperini’s story and you’re going to watch the movie or read the book, be warned that the following review will probably spoil any element of surprise for you.
Unbroken follows the life of Louis Zamperini in five parts: his years as a delinquent youth turned Olympic athlete, the beginning of his time as an airman in the Army Air Forces, the crash that led to his being at sea for over 40 days (surrounded by sharks on a poorly equipped raft), his time as a prisoner of war in Japan, and his life after the war (particularly his experience in coming to a personal relationship with Christ). At nearly 400 pages, the detail with which Hillenbrand tells Zamperini’s story is staggering. Unbroken is filled with information about Olympic records, planes that flew in the American Army Air Forces, the statistics of causalities in those air crafts, the biological effects of malnourishment and thirst, and the brutality Zamperini and so many others faced in POW camps. The latter details were certainly the most difficult to read, reminding me that the brokenness of our world knows no bounds, and that the only antidote for that brokenness is Christ. Zamperini faced extreme cruelty, a cruelty that is all too common when we learn of the brutalities of wartime.
Though this book made me feel so tense I couldn’t put it down because I just had to finish it to reach some resolution, there were beautiful moments throughout, especially when Hillenbrand reflected glimmers of Zamperini’s journey towards God. Though Zamperini didn’t give his life to Christ until he reluctantly attended a Billy Graham crusade well after the war, there are hints of his eventual conversion as Zamperini recognizes the goodness of God, and His presence, even in his most desperate moments. For instance, after his thirty-fourth day at sea, Louie and fellow crash-survivor Phil, came to “the doldrums,” described as “the eerie pause of wind and water that lingers around the equator” (p. 166):
It was an experience of transcendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like a pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fish broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness…As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before. He had thought it as he had watched hunting seabirds, marveling at their ability to adjust their dives to compensate for the refraction of light in water. He had thought it as he had considered the pleasing geometry of the sharks, their gradation of color, their slide through the sea. He even recalled the thought coming to him in his youth, when he had lain on the roof of the cabin in the Cahuilla Indian Reservation, looking up from Zane Grey to watch night settling over the earth. Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance” (p. 166).
While this book was gripping and the story well-told, I would have liked to have seen the same attention to detail around Zamperini’s conversion as was given concerning his time at sea and in POW camps. The fifth part of this book was quite short in comparison to others, and while that part of his story may not be as action-packed as being surrounded by sharks or surviving horrific conditions, it is the most important part of Zamperini’s story, because it is the beginning of his true life with Christ.
Unbroken is definitely a worthwhile read, and a real reminder of the need of the whole world for Christ. Zamperini’s story is an amazing testament to the human spirit, but knowing how God spared his life, the real testimony is of the power of God, both in the midst of tragedy and in the aftermath, where forgiveness is as much of a miracle as surviving against all odds.