Posted by: Jeanie F | December 3, 2010

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

Just when you think that everything that could be written about World War II has been written, Laura Hillenbrand (author of megahit, Seabiscuit) finds a new slant. Unbroken is the story of Louis Zamperini, a young man from Torrance, CA – right in my backyard – who joins the Army Air Force, is shot down during an air battle over the Pacific Ocean, and captured by the Japanese. Unbroken is Zamperini’s life story, with an emphasis on his interment in Japanese prison camps.

The book is broken into five parts. Part I deals with Zamperini’s boyhood in which he makes the transition from budding juvenile delinquent to Olympic track star. Part II takes him into the Army Air Force and the air battle that downs his plane. From here, Part III details the excruciating ordeal that he and his companions experience adrift on the ocean for over a month, a feat that Hillenbrand describes as the longest recorded time that anyone has survived in these circumstances. Part IV chronicles his experience at the hands of his Japanese captors; Part V his attempt to put his life back together following the war.

Hillenbrand has done a tremendous amount of research, interviews, and other documentation that authenticate the events in this book, and in many ways the attention to detail keeps the reader firmly engaged in the story. I read the book – 500 pages – in two days, unable to pull myself away from it. That Zamperini was able to survive this ordeal is truly astonishing.  The details of his time floating in the ocean accompanied by sharks is harrowing, and his treatment by the Japanese horrifying. For me, the book covered a piece of WWII history that I knew next to nothing about.

Having said that, there were spots where the inclusion of minutia dragged the story down, particularly in Part I. The heart of this story is Zamperini’s war experience. While his early life experience, and his conditioning and fame as an Olympic runner, were important to establish, it probably could have been done more concisely.

I also finished the book with the feeling that, in spite of the mountain of research and direct quotes from Zamperini, I felt fairly disconnected from him. Perhaps the fact that, following the war, he was often called on to speak about his experiences ultimately gave his recollections a “canned” feeling. Then again, the fact that he is in his 90’s may have distanced him from the experience. Also, Hillenbrand, who suffers from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, had to conduct her interviews with Zamperini by phone, which may have affected her ability to connect with him “up close and personal”.

These are minor quibbles – the book is spellbinding. Even if you think you aren’t particularly interested in reading more about WWII, you’ll be on the edge of your seat while reading much of this book.

Grade: A-


  1. Great review. This book is also on my TBR list. Seabiscuit was such a great book, I’m sure this one will be just as enjoyable.

    • I really liked it – quite a gripping story! Hope you like it, too!

  2. […] Jeanie’s blog post, Dec. 2010 […]

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