Story of a living hero

2011-04-06 00:00

WHEN Laura Hillenbrand finished writing her bestseller Seabiscuit: An American Legend she thought she would never again find a subject to fascinate her as did the “Depression-era racehorse and the team of men who campaigned him”. But when she had her “first conversation with the infectiously effervescent and apparently immortal Louie Zamperini” she changed her mind. Unbroken­ is the result.

Born in 1917 of Italian immigrant stock Zamperini grew up with a restless energy that initially found expression in rebellious delinquency. A talent for running proved his salvation­ and his prodigious speed took him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics­. But for the arrival of World War 2 he looked set to crack the four-minute mile.

Zamperini joined the United States air force, becoming a bombardier flying missions in the Pacific. In May 1943, he and his crew, assigned a rogue plane, were forced to ditch in the ocean. Zamperini and two surviving crew members took to life rafts and for over 47 days fought thirst, starvation and sharks. Before they got to land one of them had died. Worse was to come in captivity under­ the Japanese. Zamperini found himself the favoured target of a psychopathic guard nicknamed “The Bird” who subjected him to singularly­ brutal treatment; that Zamperini wasn’t killed outright was only thanks to his perceived propaganda value.

War over, Zamperini returned home and married. Running ambitions thwarted, his life fell apart in a haze of alcohol and an obsessive determination to find and kill The Bird. He’d just about reached rock-bottom when a conversion experience at a Billy Graham rally turned his life around and saw him go on to become a Christian inspirational speaker (he still is). He subsequently visited Japan to preach a message of forgiveness.

Zamperini’s is an extraordinary story and Hillenbrand’s book (as with her earlier Seabiscuit) is simply unputdownable; however, it is by no means flawless. The early section dealing with Zamperini’s youth and delinquency is written in a breathless style that steers close to stereotype, but in the war chapters the book comes into its own. Probably because Zamperini’s experiences can be verified and properly fleshed out with some fascinating background.

The post-war section is inevitably something of an anti-climax. Although there are still some surprises in store, life doesn’t imitate art and provide neat dramatic conclusions. Neither is Zamperini’s Damascus conversion explored in any depth. In fact, Hillenbrand never really gets beyond the story to the real person who lived it. Somehow Zamperini has been smoothed down into something of a cliché. Maybe this is a problem of having a living hero as both your subject and main source. Despite these observations there’s no doubt Zamperini’s story is more than sufficient to carry the book and Hillenbrand’s brilliant rendering of the nightmare ordeal of the downed fliers in the ocean is worth the price of admission alone.


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