Louis Zamperini tells author Laura Hillenbrand that he’s easier to write about than the subject of her first best-seller which was the racehorse Seabiscuit. He says this is so because he can talk. I thought of Zamperini as a human Seabiscuit* while reading his story entitled Unbroken. Like Seabiscuit, he was born to run; he trained to become the Olympic athlete that he was ever so briefly until called to serve duty. He flew fighter planes until one blew up and left him and two other men stranded and lost in the Pacific. Then he was found by the Japanese, who captured and imprisoned him. He barely survived the torture, starvation, and freezing weather of the POW Pacific camps. But like Seabiscuit, Zamperini overcame the adversity and became stronger for it. I have never read such a compassionate understanding of post-traumatic stress syndrome as what Hillenbrand presents in this book. But then again, I don’t read that many war stories. This, however, is not just a war story, it’s a story of a man who finds his himself lost, literally and figuratively, and then comes home to his country and eventually to himself.
In the chapter entitled “Coming Undone,” Hillenbrand writes about Zamperini’s becoming undone after holding all his emotions in while being a prisoner of war so as to survive, after coming home and falling in love with a beautiful woman and marrying her, and then almost losing her because of his love of drink. His wife badgers him into attending a tent sermon being led by a young Billy Graham. Hillenbrand describes the young preacher upon arriving in town:
“In the second week of September 1949, an angular young man climbed down from a transcontinental train and stepped into Los Angeles. His remarkably tall blond hair fluttered on the summit of a remarkably tall head, which in turn topped a remarkably tall body. He had a direct gaze, a stern jawline, and a southern sway in his voice…” (p. 369-370)
Louie is resistant to hearing Graham’s sermon and at one point he begins to walk out. But Graham commands that no one leaves the tent. And then he speaks these words:
“’If you look into the heavens tonight, on this beautiful California night, I see the stars and can see the footprints of God,” he said….’I think to myself, my father, my heavenly father, hung them there with a flaming fingertip and holds them there with the power of his omnipotent hand, and he runs the whole universe, and he’s not too busy running the whole universe to count the hairs on my head and see a sparrow when it falls, because God is interested in me…’”
The beautiful language of paradise reminds Louie of the time he spent in the Pacific:
“He remembered the day when he and Phil, slowly dying on the raft, had slid into the doldrums. Above, the sky had been a swirl of light; below, the stilled ocean had mirrored the sky, its clarity broken only by a leaping fish. Awed to silence, forgetting his thirst and his hunger, forgetting that he was dying, Louie had known only gratitude. That day, he believed that what lay around them was the work of infinitely broad, benevolent hands, a gift of compassion. In the years since, that thought had been lost.” (374)
Louie stays to the end of Graham’s sermon and ends up a believer, but not just in God and religion, but in himself as that unbroken spirit that he is.
*Seabiscuit is another riviting non-fiction read by Hillenbrand.