Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Day 8: Unbroken, A Dual Story of Resilience

Welcome to Day 8 in our 24 Days of Books! In 2001, Laura Hillenbrand wrote the smash hit, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. Now, almost a decade later, she has another potential smash hit on her hands with another book about redemption and a stunningly fast runner. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, tells the story of Louis Zamperini, a cunning and incorrigible delinquent who as a teen developed a talent for running (often to avoid getting caught) that took him to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Sadly, WWII interrupted his running career. He became an airman, but in May 1943 his B24 bomber jet crashed into the Pacific Ocean. He spent almost seven weeks in a fragile raft, drifting thousands of miles in the middle of the ocean with two (and then one) other survivors, surrounded by sharks and enemy aircraft. Zamperini survived that ordeal, only to be captured by the Japanese and spend two years suffering assaults, humiliation, and physical abuse in a Japanese concentration camp.

Hillenbrand learned about Zamperini while researching her book on Seabiscuit [his coach often said that the only runner who could beat him was Seabiscuit]. In writing her new book, Hillenbrand interviewed Zamperini, now 93, more than 75 times. She read his diaries, letters, and unpublished memoirs; interviewed his friends and family, former Airmen and Japanese veterans, and former Olympians; and pored through forgotten papers in archives. Zamperini wondered why all of their conversations took place over the phone. It was only after reading an article about her that he learned that she suffers from severe debilitating chronic fatigue syndrome.

After the stunning success of Seabiscuit, Hillenbrand suffered a relapse of the syndrome that has ruled her life for more than two decades, since she was 19 years old. From 2007 through the summer of 2009, she never left her house; for some of those months, she never left her room. Despite that burden she has managed to write yet another thoroughly researched, gripping, cinematic true story about triumph and resilience. When Zamperini learned of her condition he sent her one of his Purple Hearts, saying she deserved it more than him.

Unbroken is sure to be one of the biggest sellers this holiday season. Her first book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and led to a smash motion picture; Unbroken is likely headed down a similar path. It's a great read -- a real page-turner -- regardless of the backstory of the author, but that story does make her accomplishment all the more impressive.

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