Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

May 4, 2011

Summary (from the publisher): On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

Warning: Spoilers below!


  • The account of Louie and Phil’s 47 days adrift on the rubber life raft was positively riveting. That was the first part of the book that really piqued my interest. I cannot imagine spending that much time at sea without a steady supply of food or drinkable water, trying to catch my bearings, wondering if anyone would ever find me. How the men survived through that I’ll never know.
  • I enjoyed reading about the POWs when they learned of the end of the war and started receiving airlifts of food, clothing, and medical supplies. Who can resist that kind of triumph at the end of a long period of adversity?
  • I’m glad Hillenbrand followed up on what happened with not only Louie, but also the Bird after the war ended. It was interesting to read of the Bird hiding out in the mountains of Japan, though I was disappointed that he was never captured. It hardly seems fitting that such a monster would have a long, full life surrounded by wealth and luxury after committing such atrocities during the war.


  • I know this is going to sound bad, but the stories of the POW camp brutalities became very tedious after a while. I mean, I completely understand why Louie would want every blow, every degradation, every humiliating circumstance set down for posterity, but as a reader, it was repetitive and boring. I respect all the POWs and admire their personal strength in the face of such adversity, but that doesn’t mean I wanted to read about all the minutiae. The book really dragged through these parts.
  • I found it ironic that Hillenbrand noted Russell Allen Phillips’ annoyance at being treated as a mere “footnote” in Louie’s story, yet she ended up doing exactly the same thing! He barely figured in this story at all. The way Hillenbrand told it, Phil did nothing on the life raft except while away his time in a stupor while Louie’s determination and resourcefulness pulled them through.
  • Again, I feel a bit uncomfortable saying anything negative about Louie Zamperini because obviously I have nothing against the man himself. But speaking as a book lover and reviewer, I have to say that I was somewhat put off by the way Hillenbrand treated Louie as somehow more heroic than everyone else at the POW camp. Louie wasn’t the only one who was beaten daily, who suffered under the Bird’s abuses, or whose will to survive pushed him through near starvation, dehydration, illness, and exposure. Yet Hillenbrand made it sound as if survival were unique only to Louie because he had some special drive or gift that helped him persevere. I realize this book was about him, not the other 699 POWs at Omori, but still… aside from the 47 days on the raft, Louie’s experiences were not at all singular in the context of WWII.


I decided to read Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand based on the overwhelmingly positive reader reviews on sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, but I ended up being disappointed. While Louis Zamperini’s story certainly is a good one, I don’t think it was told all that well in this book. Sure, you can’t embellish a “true story” or make it any more exciting or dramatic than it actually was, but it doesn’t have to be as strictly tedious, either. A good editor might have trimmed a substantial number of pages while keeping the overall gist the same — a move that certainly would have benefited the reader. Though I’m sure this will be an unpopular rating, I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

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