Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Club: "Unbroken"

Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken was not on my personal reading list. It seems the older I get the less interested I am in reading about pain and suffering. At last night's book club discussion I found out I wasn't alone.

Reading Unbroken was similar to watching Apollo 13 or Columbo -- you know the ending yet you're fascinated to learn how the characters arrive there. We knew Louis Zamperini survived the horrific events related in the book but wanted to learn how. In reading Unbroken I dreaded picking it up again each time I put it down. Yet once I began reading I was hooked.

Louis Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, where he was best described as a young "hell raiser." His antics ranged from pranks to delinquency. Older brother Pete was handsome, mannerly, and reliable. Louis took the opposite route. It was the intervention of Pete that turned Louis' life around when he convinced the high school principal to allow the incorrigible Louis to participate in a school sport. Louis took up running and proved to be a phenomenon. He broke high school, state, and college records that eventually took him to the U. S. Olympic trials where Louis became the youngest member of the 1936 team. Although he didn't medal in Berlin, Zamperini's burst of speed during the last lap of the 5,000 meter race garnered international recognition. The 1940 Olympics were cancelled due to World War II and, with his running career sidelined, Louis joined the Army Air Forces. As a lieutenant, Louis became the bombardier on a B-24 Liberator in the South Pacific. When their plane went down in the Pacific, Louis was one of three crew members to survive the crash. Thus began a 47-day ordeal on a small raft in a huge ocean. After combating thirst, hunger, and sharks, Louis and the other remaining crewman were taken prisoner by the Japanese. Louis and the other POWs received brutal treatment at the hands of the Japanese, but Louis was singled out by the sadistic guard the men called "The Bird."

Hillenbrand recounts Zamperini's brutal treatment as a POW without going into the gory details. Still, the repetitive abuses were difficult to read. It's understandable that Louis and the other surviving POWs would have difficulty adjusting to civilian life after the war.

Our discussion included the topic of heroism. The news media covers stories about individuals to rise to the occasion, but Louis Zamperini's heroism lasted for years. Without knowing the outcome, Louis refused to be used as a Japanese propaganda tool in order to escape the sadistic treatment of The Bird. We talked about how war legitimizes psychopaths and how even upstanding people are degraded by its demands. Today we recognize the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but in 1945 the veterans were expected to man up and just resume their lives on their return. We discussed personality traits that make up a survivor and how the American POWs defied the guards in even the smallest ways to assert their self-worth. Louis demonstrated how corrosive anger can be when he became obsessed after the war with revenge against The Bird. It wasn't until Louis met a young Billy Graham that he was able to release his hatred and heal emotionally. Louis even returned to the Sugamo Prison Camp after the war -- a fete none of us believed we could do considering the treatment Louis experienced there.

Louis Zamperini was a flawed human being who survived unbelievable events. The determination that made him a track star and Olympian also saw him through his horrendous ordeals. Yet his unhealthy focus on The Bird served him ill after the war. The inspiration to be found in Zamperini's story is that even the most human of us can find the strength to survive the worst events. Louis Zamperini's story certainly puts into perspective our day-to-day trials.

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