Laura Hillenbrand first encountered Louis Zamperini while researching her 2003 bestseller Seabiscuit—and how lucky for us that she did. You may not know his name, but Zamperini was famous in his day, an Olympic runner who was secretly held in Japan for two brutal years during World War II after a plane crash left him stranded at sea, presumed dead. How he survived—and how his family never lost hope for his return—is the epic story at the heart of Unbroken.

Zamperini grew up a mischievous trouble magnet in Southern California. Steered toward competitive running by his brother, he earned a spot on the 1936 U.S. Olympic track team and competed in Berlin. He didn’t medal, but he was on his way to becoming a world-class athlete. Many thought he would be the first man to run a four-minute mile.

Then Germany invaded Poland, and everything changed. Drafted into the Army Air Corps, Zamperini was stationed on Oahu as a bombardier. When his B-24 crashed into the Pacific during a rescue mission, he spent 47 days huddled in a raft, battling sharks and the equatorial sun, before being captured by Japanese forces.

Most Pacific POWs were held with little regard for the protections of the Geneva Convention. Zamperini’s hellish experiences came at the hands of Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a sadistic man who mercilessly and systematically beat, starved and degraded POWs. At his lowest, a battered Zamperini found himself forced to clean a pig pen with his bare hands: “If anything is going to shatter me, Louie thought, this is it. Sickened and starving, his will a fraying wire, Louie had only the faint hope of the war’s end, and rescue, to keep him going.”

Hillenbrand is undoubtedly a terrific reporter and storyteller, with an eye for details that make each page sing. But her truest gift may be her innate respect for her subjects. Hillenbrand never deifies Zamperini, who returned from war a broken man prone to flashbacks and barroom brawls before a chance encounter with evangelist Billy Graham turned his life around. Unbroken is a spellbinding celebration of resilience, forgiveness and the human capacity for finding beauty in the unlikeliest places.

 

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