It took Laura Hillenbrand 7 years to research and write the book “Unbroken”; it took me two and a half days to read it. The book is roughly 500 pages long. To say that I “couldn’t put it down,“ would be an understatement—I became wholly engrossed, and at once, addicted. It seems that, for evolutionary reasons, humans seem to become more engaged with survival narratives; especially if the yarn is spun in a way in which the reader can easily place herself into the shoes of the protagonist. The fact that this book is historical non-fiction (the events really took place), makes it that much more fascinating.
Research in pedagogy/psychology reveals that readers retain more information from texts that contain information that is of very high personal interest. I’ve read extensively on: the physics of flight – yaw, drag, lift, cornering speeds, stall speeds, thrust, G-force, maximum amount of G-force the human body can withstand before blackout/redout, max possible speed that can be attainted according to fuselage design; aviation; evasive aerial maneuvers and ACM according to Robert L. Shaw; World War II—both the conflict in Europe and the conflict in the Pacific Theatre; Japanese war crimes and violations of the Geneva Convention; famous aerial battles in the Pacific Theatre – the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Battle for Midway, the Guadalcanal Campaign, and the Battle of the Philippine Sea aka “The Great Turkey Shoot” (to name a few); The Battle of Iwo Jima, the beach landings, Japanese resistance, removal of entrenched bunkers by means of flamethrowers, and the iconic “raising of the flag”; The Battle of Saipan and Saito’s Banzai Charge; the design schematics and flight characteristics of the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, Lockheed P-38 Lightning (fork tailed devil), Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat, F4U Corsair, Grumman F6F Hellcat, B-24 Liberator, and B-29 Superfortress; ethical considerations concerning America’s use of atomic force, and the estimated cost of human life/resources required for an amphibious assault on Japan; Seppuku; the Legend of the 47 Ronin; Kamikaze attacks, and the motivation behind them; the Japanese military mentality inspired by the culture of the Samurai Warrior; and the willingness of the Japanese to fight to the last man, woman, and child. This is just a short list of some of my obsessions concerning World War II. It was, arguably, the last “Just War” (Augustinian reference—“Just” as in adjective; not adverb) in which the United States decided to participate. I am so interested in World War II aerial battles, that I wrote a story, originally titled “Pistol Pete,” about the P51D Mustang, and included it in my novella “Dread in Madrid”; although, the story takes place in the European Theatre, not the Pacific. It is available on Amazon.
In addition to Military History, I am also fascinated by competitive running – being a runner myself. I have participated in many 5k races, and completed a marathon. As of now, I am training for a triathlon. It would seem then, that I would be highly interested in a book that was written about an Olympic runner who becomes a bombardier in a B-24 Liberator, gets shot down, and survives some of the harshest conditions any man has ever had to endure – including several Japanese POW camps.
I normally don’t bother with contemporary authors—it takes a great deal to peak my interest. It seems that “Unbroken” has recently been adapted for film. I suppose I will go see it, but I wanted to read the book first. Reading a book after watching the film completely ruins the experience of reading and defeats its purpose; one surrenders their imagination to the vision of the film director; when the reader encounters a scene from the movie in the book, they immediately picture the scene from the film. Reading the book before watching the film is a better mental workout—the reader must conjure up original images in his or her mind, instead of capitulating to the vision of a movie director.
I’ve always found it helpful to have a list of major characters before I read book – it can sometimes be too taxing to keep track of them all while trying to follow the action/plot. I’ve found that, in many of the fiction workshops I have attended, many amateur writers tend to introduce too many characters too quickly; while the author may have a deep understanding of all of the characters, the reader does not. Rookie authors often make the mistake of assuming that the reader will be able to instantly memorize the names of characters, create a mental picture, and create mental associations/relationships to people in their past experiences (which is the best way to keep track of fictional or non-fictional characters). Even “professional” writers sometimes fail to provide a physical description of all characters upon introduction, or introduce them too quickly.
Laura Hillenbrand does not make this mistake too often, but the book is epic in scope – a comparison between “Unbroken” and Homer’s Odyssey is not unwarranted (there is a literary allusion in Unbroken); however, “Unbroken” is obviously not an epic poem; I would classify it as “Literary Historical Non-Fiction.” Not all non-fiction is literary, or makes use of literary device. The point being that the story is so long, that it would be helpful to have a list of the characters before embarking on this reading quest. I will now highlight the major characters:
Louis Zamperini- The son of Italian immigrants, and thus, Roman Catholic protagonist. He plays pranks and gets into trouble in his youth. Later, he becomes an Olympic runner capable of running a mile in just over four minutes. He joins the Air Force, attains the rank of officer, and becomes a bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in crew 8 of the 372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, seventh Air Force.
“The Bird” or Mutsuhiro Watanabe- A Japanese corporal at a POW camp; the main antagonist in the book. He is handsome, with sharp features—and frequently frequents a whore house after he sadistically beats American prisoners. He comes from a wealthy family, is well educated, and speaks French – he is fascinated by the philosophy of French Existentialism; that is to say, Sartre & Camus, which he interprets as atheistic nihilism.
Hitler- The host of the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany.
Russell Allen Phillips “Phil”- The pilot of B-24 Liberator in crew 8 of the 372nd Bomb Squadron of the 307th Bomb Group, seventh Air Force; officer; son of a Methodist pastor. Eventually, Phil ends up sharing a raft with Louie after their plane crashes into the pacific.
Mac- A tail gunner on a B-24 Liberator “The Green Hornet” (A shot up B-24 in bad condition) in the 42nd Squadron of the 11th Bomb Group. He has an “affinity for desserts”. Eventually, he ends up in a raft with Phil and Louie.
Lieutenant William Harris- Member of American MENSA; genius; prisoner of war in Ofuna. He has a perfect photographic memory. He is capable of memorizing large volumes of information with a single glance and retaining that information for years. He is a mammoth of a man—over six feet tall.
Jimmie Sasaki- Japanese spy in America who eventually meets Louie again at a Japanese POW camp.
Fred Garret- Pilot of a downed B-24. He survives with a fractured ankle on a lifeboat. He is captured by the Japanese. His ankle is kicked in and eventually sawed off by the Japanese without the use of an anesthetic.
Masajiro Hirayabashi “Shithead”- An unintelligent Japanese guard at a POW camp.
Sueharu Kitamura “The Quack”- Ex-Sake salesman and now medical officer at the Ofuna POW camp. He delights in torturing injured American POWs by exacerbating their wounds when they come for treatment. After he cuts open old wounds, he sadistically asks his patients “Can you tell me where it hurts?”
These are some of the major characters that one should be familiar with before reading the book. I was going to include more, but I feared plot spoilers.
Deconstruction of the text:
The book begins In Medias res—Latin for in the middle. This was probably a good choice, considering that most people might find the first six chapters to be a bit of a grind. The reader is forced to chase the carrot on a stick and keep reading to find out what happens in that first short scene. Psychology indicates that the human brain is wired to desire closure; it will be bothered by a lack of resolution. The author (or editor) was wise to bait the reader in the beginning.
A convincing argument could be made that the first 70 pages of the book, which detail Louie’s career as a runner, are extraneous (or at least could be shortened) – but I would like to refute that argument. It is true that this book is primarily a survival story that takes place during World War II; it is not a story about competitive running. But the background information about Louie is necessary to understand his character: he is shrewd, capable of pranks and theft, and has an unbreakable will. Without these attributes, Louie would not be able to survive the trials and tribulations that face him later on in the plot.
I personally enjoy reading about competitive running and random facts about the 1930’s/Great Depression. For example, I did not know that women who had sex out of wedlock in the 1930’s were considered “mentally ill” (see p. 11); it seems that the criterion for “mental illness” changes every few decades or so.
The author also seems to consider eugenics a “pseudoscience” and states this as fact (p.11). This is dangerous and may be considered a form of intellectually dishonesty; it might be true that there exists a humane or utilitarian form of eugenics (or it might exist in the future). But for the most part, yes, “cleansing” the human race of: “criminals, masturbators, the insane, orphans, the disabled, the poor, the homeless, …etc” might not be a good idea.
Unless you enjoy factual information like I do, the book doesn’t really begin to pick up until Chapter 7 “This is it, Boys.” [Coincidentally, the title of this chapter was a line of dialogue from my second story in Dread in Madrid.] The chapter details Louie’s first experience with aerial combat in his first B24, which the crew called “Super man.” If you like reading action sequences, the first 70 pages are well worth the wait for the seventh chapter.
The story really starts to become exciting when Louie finds himself in a lifeboat with Phil and Mac. Originally, there are two lifeboats. I will not reveal what happens. I will say that when you are reading this book and you do not believe than it cannot get any worse, it does—out of the frying pan and into the fire. I really enjoyed the use of foreshadowing via the appearance of the albatross on page 151. This bad omen can be traced all the way back to the Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”; it is great that the text explicitly states this/spells it out for the reader – being subtle about a poetic reference would only be effective with a reader like myself. In the Coleridge poem, the crewmate who kills the albatross eventually finds himself on a boat full of ghosts of his deceased crewmates—accusative specters; ever since the publication, superstitious seamen have come to accept the fact that it is probably not wise to kill an albatross while at sea. The symbol of the albatross (as bad luck) has persisted throughout the cannon of Western Literature – a quick search via a concordance or Google will reveal myriad results. The two that came immediately to my mind were Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Melville’s Moby Dick – there is another poem (name escapes me, GAH! Hag. #palindrome) that also makes reference.
It seems that adventures at sea or World War II have formed the skeleton for some great American writing. Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym,” his only novel, inspired Melville’s “Moby Dick”. The author of “Unbroken” could have woven in allusions to these works; or she could have referenced Joseph Heller’s magnum opus “Catch-22.” On the other hand, I’m glad she did not—Catch-22 has comic overtones; and “Unbroken” is well-written enough to not have to rest on the laurels of other literary greats. I’m delighted that there were any literary allusions at all – I certainly wasn’t expecting any. The author does mention Fredrick Douglass, but after reading “Unbroken,“ a plantation in the deep South pre-Civil War, or even Auschwitz, seems like a country club compared to a Japanese POW camp. Because the story is told from the perspective of tortured American soldiers, the reader will find herself turning every page just hoping for “Little Boy” to fall on Hiroshima, or “Fat Man” to hit Nagasaki.
One of the most impressive aspects of this book is the amount of research that went into it, which is commendable. To the extent of my knowledge, it is completely accurate. The A6M Zero was one of the most nimble fighters of the war, and could probably out-turn any fighter plane in World War II, with the exception of a few Russian planes – the La7 comes to mind. The zero was designed for one versus one showdowns—samurai-like duels—against other enemy fighters; it was not (initially) designed to attack bombers because it was very vulnerable to damage. Allied fighters who tried dogfight the zero were almost never successful; American pilots eventually adapted a “boom and zoom” style, or relied on team tactics and wingmen. A short burst of 50 caliber machine gun fire was often enough to down a zero. The greatest American ace flew in the Pacific Theatre – Dick Bong, 40 victories. The exact amount of enemy planes that one needed to shoot down to become an “ace” is 5:
“The TBF pilot, Ray Hawkins, was a legend. In World War II, he shot down fourteen Japanese planes, making him an ace nearly three times over, and was awarded three Navy Crosses. He went on to fly in the Korean War, then became a Blue Angels flight leader. He was the first man to eject from a jet at supersonic speed. He survived.” (p.313)
At its core, “Unbroken” is a book that deeply examines psychological warfare, the will, and the philosophy of oppression. With respect to oppression, Paulo Freire had a theory of inheritance; that is to say that the oppressed eventually adopt the mentality of their oppressors when they are liberated; the oppressed become oppressors. There is certainly evidence of this in “Unbroken.” I quote:
“For all Japanese soldiers, especially low-ranking ones, beating was inescapable, often a daily event. It is thus unsurprising that camp guards, occupying the lowest station in a military that applauded brutality, would vent their frustrations on the helpless men under their authority. Japanese historians call this phenomenon ‘transfer of oppression.’” (p. 201)
“Unbroken” also explores the connection between sexuality and violence. Neuroscience demonstrates that, indeed, there is a connection – areas in the brain that are associated with sexuality are intertwined with those areas that are activated while committing violence. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, our ancestors were sometimes forced to “overpower” the opposite sex, physically, before intercourse. Perhaps our very strong women ancestors raped men; and our very strong male ancestors raped women. Either way, our species evolved in a way such that sexual arousal is linked to violence. This is a theme that appears in Anthony Burgess’ masterpiece “A Clockwork Orange.” I have explored the connection in my own writing, including the story I wrote about World War II in my novella “Dread in Madrid.”
Two of the cruelest Japanese guards, Quack and the Bird, seem to become sexually aroused by beating helpless American prisoners. The language used to describe them while they dish out their punishments is highly sexually charged: “The Bird strolled away. His face wore the same soft languor that Louie had seen on the face of the Quack after he beat Harris at Ofuna. It was an expression of sexual rapture.” (p. 304) There are other examples, but this was just one that comes to mind. That being said, “Unbroken” does amount to more than just “torture porn” – there is a love story, but I won’t ruin the plot for you.
Readers who are hoping for some sort of “final balancing of the scales,” or retribution, will be sorely disappointed – the book, instead, showcases the harsh reality that sometimes extreme cruelty is never properly punished; in addition, sometimes the wrong people are punished (I will not give away any plot spoilers). The POW prisoners have their “little victories” against the guards—they steal some rice, teach dim-witted guards incorrect English that involves profanity, or fart when they are forced to bow to the Emperor of Japan—but, in most cases, they never have the opportunity to dish out the same types of punishments that they were subjected to, at the hands of the guards.
In this respect, there are some underlying Christian themes in the book – for those who wish to look for them. They are certainly subtle and not overly overt; for this reason, non-Christians will not find themselves annoyed; and they will not feel like the prose is attempting to be didactic. Even so, the themes are there, and they are worth pointing out. When Louie is stranded on the raft, he begins to pray to God. His prayers are answered in little ways that I will not discuss in this review. In the New Testament, Jesus allegedly fasted in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. After Louie’s B24 crashes, he is stranded in a raft for much longer than that; but, on the 40th day, he begins to hallucinate and hear angelic music. Was this a coincidence? Possibly, but, in this historical non-fiction account of true events, why didn’t that particular experience occur on the 41st day, the 39th day, or the 69th day? It is worth pondering.
When the POWs first see the B-29 SuperFortresses fly over head toward Japan, they refer the airplanes as “their Messiah.” (p. 256) Despite all of the horror that you will encounter in this book, you will find occasional bits of humor. At about the time the POWs see the first B-29, the Japanese begin broadcast propaganda on the radio. In one instance, a Japanese General reports that a fighter pilot has downed an American bomber with a “rice ball.”
At one point in the book, Louie is forced hold a wooden beam over his head. He is told that he will be beaten if he drops the beam. Although it might be a stretch, this seems analogous to a beaten Jesus forced to carry his own cross. That is not to say that Louie is a Christ-figure by any means – he is human and has some serious flaws; but, nevertheless, the image is still there. Ultimately, there is no poetic justice in this narrative. The conflict is resolved with forgiveness—not vengeance. In the real world, perhaps this type of resolution is sometimes the only one to be had. I highly recommend this book!