I have been meaning to read this book since I got a free Kindle sample of the first chapter…oh, years ago now. But I didn’t get to it until this month, when my book club decided to try it. Of course because of the movie, no copies were available, so I waited on hold forever and a day and scored the audiobook at the last possible second.
I’m not sure how this book would read in my head, but initially I found the audiobook difficult to listen to. Since it essentially relates the events of Louis Zamperini’s life, and the author doesn’t try to tell a story so much as just get all the facts out there, it’s pretty dry at first. But after a chapter or two, I got so invested in Louie’s story that I found myself making excuses to drive somewhere so I could keep listening. One of the things I found most interesting was the information about the Japanese army’s exploits prior to Pearl Harbor. I’m not sure if it is my fault or the fault of my American History teachers, but I remember learning a bazillion details about how World War II began and spread through Europe, but in my mind the Japanese just sort of burst onto the scene by attacking Pearl Harbor and – poof! – they were in the war. But that isn’t what happened at all – they had already worked their way through Asia conquering people right and left along the way, the Americans were just next. Needless to say I need to read more Pacific-oriented WWII history to get the bigger picture.
Anyway. Even if Zamperini had never spent 47 days on a life raft in the Pacific and then 2 years in various war camps, his childhood and his running career would have made him interesting enough to fill a book. The thought of an American teenager one step away from juvenile deliquency deciding one day to attempt to qualify for the Olympics – without sponsors or a lifetime of coaching – was completely bizarre to me, but in Louie’s case, it worked. And the story of his trip to the Berlin Olympics was hilarious – can you see Olympic athletes today sharing an overseas trip on a cramped boat with no exercise space and showing up at the Olympics several weeks out of condition? But that’s how they did it, and despite overeating and gaining many pounds on the voyage, Louie ran in the Olympics anyway. It’s a great story.
But then the war starts, Louie joins the Air Force, and it’s all pretty scary after that. I hadn’t realized how deadly it was to be in World War II – my father’s stories of the war always seem relatively benign. Of course he didn’t enlist until 1943, and worked in a POW camp in the Philippines, which I suppose was pretty safe from bombing that late in the war. But bomber crews rarely lasted for longer than one or two attacks, and Louie’s crew is no exception. They survive their first, but damage their plane so badly and suffer so many injuries that their whole crew gets rearranged before their fateful “rescue mission” kills everyone but Louie and 2 others. And nothing my father ever told me about his POW camp (where he essentially took the prisoners from their bunks to meals, then to the fields for the day, and then took them back to their bunks at night) could prepare me for what happens to Louie in the Japanese camps.
During our discussion, one of my book club members said that she felt bad because she read the whole book, with all of its torture and hardships, and didn’t shed a tear until the part about the duck (the POWs get attached to a stray duck that hangs around their camp – I can’t even tell you what happens to the poor thing, it’s atrocious). I understood this reaction, though – the book is so full of horrible things being done to humans that if you stopped to really feel empathy for one of the people in the story, you would have to consider how awful it was for all of the others, and you’d be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of their collective horror. But somehow, it’s bearable to cry for an innocent duck, because there is only one of him. Anyway. If you want to keep any of your faith in the basic goodness of people, skip ahead a few chapters when you get to the duck part.
As for the cruelty and inhumanity, it IS hard to take – but what I found most awful was learning what happened to a lot of the men after the war was over. Louis Zamperini is an exception – most of the men who survived the POW camps did not go on to have decent postwar lives. Even Louie spent many years trying to drink himself to death before he found religion, turned his life around and forgave his captors. Frankly, I don’t know how he did it – forgiving must have been hard, and living a Christian life of service after being forced to serve others must have been daunting. But he and his brother truly did spend the rest of their postwar lives working with kids and making people’s lives better. I know I am an skeptic and tend to knock religion, but in this man’s case, Christianity really does what it is supposed to. It helps him get his life together, and leads him to help others. I can’t argue with success.
By the end, when Louie carries the Olympic torch through Nagano in 1988 near the site of his former camp, cheered on by millions of Japanese spectators, I defy you not to feel a little better about humanity.