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Unbroken

Louis Zamperini merits no more than one paragraph in Billy Graham’s star-studded, 776-page autobiography, Just As I Am. Zamperini makes his appearance as Graham fights exhaustion and preps for the eighth week of his 1949 Los Angeles the evangelistic crusade:

[Zamperini] was the U.S. track start who had pulled a flag bearing the Nazi swastika down from the Reichstag during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Later, in the Second World War, he was shot down in the Pacific and drifted on a liferaft for forty-seven days. He survived attacks by Japanese pilots who swopped down on him for target practice. Finally, the Japanese captures him and put him in prison for two years. Although he was a famous athlete and war hero, he came home feeling unhappy, disillusioned, and broken in spirit. One night he wandered into our tent in Los Angeles with his wife and accepted Christ, and his life was transformed.

So there you have it: Zamperini’s life summarized in six sentences. Olympian. Survivor. Prisoner. Hero. Alcoholic. Christian. But there is so much more to Zamperini’s story that nearly the 500 pages of Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by bestselling author Laura Hillenbrand (Seabiscuit) cannot even do him justice. Not that Hillenbrand could be faulted for lack of effort. She devoted seven years to researching and writing about the “apparently immortal” Zamperini. (Now 93, he lives in Hollywood, California. Rumor has it Nicholas Cage will play him in the movie. Jake Gyllenhaal would be a dead ringer, if you ask me.) Zamperini sat down for 75 interviews with Hillenbrand. These events have been so seared into his memory that recalls nearly every detail today. Whatever Zamperini couldn’t remember or didn’t know about life in Depression-era America or the war in the Pacific Hillenbrand supplements with consulting a whole cast of experts, including staff at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

Gifted and dedicated writers like Hillenbrand can make even ordinary stories interesting. So you can imagine what she does with one of the most remarkable and unlikely stories of the twentieth century. If Hillenbrand weren’t so credible and Zamperini’s life weren’t so thoroughly documented, you’d liken the book to Forrest Gump. He impressed Adolf Hitler and briefly met the notorious dictator. He swiped a “Do Not Disturb” sign from fellow Olympian Jesse Owens. His bomber returned safely despite 594 holes inflicted by the enemy in one perilous run. Yet he crashed on a rescue mission when an officer ordered him and fellow crewmates to board another damaged plane that had no business flying. He and his best friend, a pilot, fought off the sun, sharks, and starvation for weeks longer than anyone thought men could survive at sea without provisions. But those days drifting two thousand miles in the Pacific felt like paradise compared to life in Japanese captivity. He avoided the standard prisoner’s treatment-interrogation, then beheading-only because Japanese authorities believed they could employ the famous athlete in propaganda efforts. All this and much more Hillenbrand recounts in riveting, excruciating, and often gruesome detail. She will have earned whatever awards come her way for this book, which even in hardcover has already sold briskly through the holiday season.

That said, I finished the book with one major reservation. The title is all wrong. We might naturally examine Zamperini’s life, marvel at what he survived, and call him “unbroken.” But remember how Billy Graham described him: “Although he was a famous athlete and war hero, he came home feeling unhappy, disillusioned, and broken in spirit.” Hillenbrand supplies the troubling details. Like so many other former prisoners of war, Zamperini struggled to cope with life after rescue. He traveled around the country accepting awards for his heroism. Each venue demanded he share details of his ordeal. He began drinking heavily so he could forget, if only for a time. The emotional scars wouldn’t heal. Post-traumatic stress turned into raging alcoholism. He fought constantly with his wife, even abusing her physically during one nightmare when he imagined himself killing one particularly evil captor. He lost much of his money on failed investments. His wife planned to divorce him, taking their only child. During the war, God had answered the countless prayers for physical deliverance Zamperini had offered hour after hour for years on end. Indeed, he found the freedom he so desired, but it only seemed to build resentment toward God. While nothing war threw at Zamperini could break him, the aftermath did.

I’ve already shared many choice events from this page-turner, so I won’t go into further detail about how the Lord sought out Zamperini. Be warned, though: You may shed some tears when reading about Zamperini’s return visit to Japan, when he met with many of his former captors. Hillenbrand tells these stories beautifully, tying up loose ends with the book’s many heroes but also the villains. She leaves us wondering and hoping that these chastened captors understood Zamperini’s forgiveness as the outworking of Jesus’ death and resurrection for sinners.

Zamperini’s story of survival and resilience will grab most readers’ attention. But it’s his testimony of redemption that makes Unbroken perhaps the most exciting and encouraging book published in 2010. You won’t feel even a tinge of worry when sharing the book with unbelievers. It should provoke fascinating conversations. Unbroken memorably illustrates both the depths of human depravity and the strength of the human will. In the end, it exposes our desperate need for a Savior. For if even Louis Zamperini can be broken, how much more should we fess up to brokenness and turn to Jesus, who alone can make us whole?

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