Friday, March 29, 2013

Unbroken - Laura Hillenbrand

Since discovering that the secret for audio books and me is to play them in the kitchen while I am cooking or cleaning up, I have constantly had a tape or disc in the kitchen sound system. I have consciously had to stop the 'book de jour' to listen to NPR news, 'Prairie Home Companion' and 'Celtic Sojourn'. Now THAT is saying something when NPR and my fave radio gets pre-empted by an audio book, but I find I love being read to ... a real story, an adventure, or a fantasy!

 My latest adventure is Laura Hillenbrand's account of Louis Zamperini's whirlwind life and his harrowing war experience when he and his crew are lost at sea during WWII's Pacific engagement with the Japanese. Zamperini is a rowdy, smart assed,  young Italian kid from Torrance, California. He leads a rough and tumble life from childhood up through his teen years, a rowdy child who challenges all authority, has light fingers and a daring personality that gets him into all manner of scrapes with his parents, teachers, neighbors, and the law. When it seems that Louis is going to end up in the state juvenile system (or worse!), his older brother takes it upon himself to find a socially acceptable outlet for his younger rogue of a brother. He begins training him on the running track at school. After a few 'false starts', Louis settles in and becomes a track star ( all that running from the law and his parents HAD to come to something!). He progresses through high school track finals and into the college track system in the California state college system. He's fast and strong and because he is such a spirited personality, he gathers a following that supports him and pushes him to greater athletic heights.

Louis ends up qualifying for US Olympic track team and goes to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, placing respectably for a young up-and-coming track athlete. Returning home triumphantly clutching all sort of pilfered souvenirs of the German Reich and Germanic culture, he becomes a source of pride and chagrin for his followers and family. He's a fun and lovable rake with an incredible athletic talent! With aspirations for the 1940 Olympics (in Tokyo), Zamperini continues to train at USC  ... but alas, Tokyo backs out of hosting and Finland signs on ... and then war breaks out in Europe and the Olympics are cancelled.

The American military begins to ramp up and Louis joins up. Here, his life takes a major twist. Louis becomes part of a crew on a fighter plane that is ordered into the air war in the Pacific. His years of resilience and savvy on the streets of Torrance, dodging bullies and cops will look like child's play compared to what he's in for. A plane crash in the middle of the Pacific, a long fight for survival at sea with wounded crew mates, a stint in one of the notoriously harsh prison camps of the Japanese army, and finally rescue brings back a far more mature and heroic man.

Hillenbrand makes Zamperini seem larger than life, but really, the men of that WWII generation were larger than life. Young and full of promise, thrown into the biggest conflagration the world has known, they performed with a sense of adventure, loyalty to each other, honor for home and country, and humor and self-deprecation that took the horrors they saw in stride. It was the only way to go ... and they went there. And back again.

This is a great read, fast-paced, full of pluck and humor. The audio version is read by Edward Herrmann, a pretty well-known stage and television actor. His voice is perfect - resonant and expressive and his pacing is excellent also. It often feels like I am listening to a reminiscence around the kitchen table. I expect to look up and see a group of old geezers yakking up their times 'back in the day' - geezers now, young bucks then in their prime and willing to take on the world. I plan to share this book with my Dad. He might just like this easy listen. At 90, he was in that generation of soldiers, trained for the Naval Air Corps and knows those big old planes. I'm betting he will enjoy this story of one smart ass guy who made it through the hardest of times and came back to tell the tale.

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