There is no story without conflict. We can all agree on that. Another theory, widely accepted, is that extreme pressure reveals character, but I’m no longer sure I buy it. After having seen Louie Zamperini through 47 days afloat on a raft and more than two years in various Japanese prison camps, I have nothing but admiration for the guy. (And for Laura Hillenbrand in bringing us his story.) But as you read Unbroken, you meet so many human beings behaving in such a spectrum of ways from evil to heroic that you may wonder. There’s an old, old notion that suffering purifies — the “refiner’s fire” idea. What we see in Unbroken strikes me as a modern, dismaying possibility: maybe hardship is simply hardship and an invididual’s reaction to it is determined more by the pressures of any given moment than by nobility or courage, or their absence.
I suspect this is not what Hillenbrand has in mind: the book, after all, is subtitled A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Her affection and admiration for her subject Louie Zamperini circles around this fact: he lived through a hair-raising series of traumas and found a way to leave them behind. But some men didn’t. Some men died, or stole food, or lost their minds. Are these behaviors indices of their fundamental qualities? What about the Japanese prison guards, molded by cultural forces, fighting a losing war? How are we to judge them?
And come to think of it, what do we learn of Hillenbrand herself from the way she tells this tale? I think the fact that I can even entertain this subversion of her primary theme is evidence of a scrupulous, well-intentioned writer. She has set out to write a story that could have been on the cover of Life magazine in the mid-fifties, a classic arc ending on a bright note — Billy Graham even plays a part. But years and years of research (wait ’til you see the footnotes) and the backdrop of our more skeptical era shade the black/white, us/them interpretation. Yes, there are bad guys and they are spectacular. But even the sharks are, well, just sharks. Hillenbrand won’t judge. Her stance is that she’s just relating the facts. Of course no writer can do that, since selection alone reveals your attitude. But she has compassion for everyone.
All this being said, Unbroken is a good read. It’s outside my normal range but a sample Kindle chapter completely sucked me in (unlike the drab Vanity Fair excerpt: poor editing?). It’s selling like hotcakes and I can see why. What’s not to like about the uplifting tale of a California track star, an Olympian, who fought in the Pacific theater of World War II and despite years of the worst kinds of torment, found his way back to his former effervescent humanity?