Thursday, November 17, 2011

Unbelievable

Pontificating briefly on our celebrity-obsessed culture. It seems to me that we get so wrapped up in the lives of the "famous" that we forget that more ordinary people have led lives of great drama and epic sweep. Louis (pronounced Louie) Zamperini -- still alive at almost 95 -- is one of these people. Thank goodness we have author/researchers like Laura Hillenbrand who can tell Louis' story with all the adventure, tension and drama of a piece of fiction and -- like she did with the tale of a horse named Seabiscuit -- she excels in Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. If you just heard the bones of Louis' story, you'd think it was completely made up.

Louis was the second son of Italian immigrants, born in 1917. He grew up in Torrance, California as the local juvenile delinquent, always in trouble of one kind or another. As he reached his teen years, he began channeling that energy into running and very soon he became a world class miler, running the distance in slightly more than four minutes. He qualified to compete in the 5,000 meters at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and even though he finished 8th, he garnered the attention of Adolph Hitler.

Upon returning home, Louis continued his running career at the University of Southern California, but he quit just short of graduation. He joined the army just before Pearl Harbor, then asked to be returned to civilian life after a few months. Out a uniform for a short while, he was drafted into the Army Air Forces and assigned to bombadier training on the new B-24 bomber. By 1943, Louis -- who was one of the crew who actually dropped the bombs -- was flying missions in the Pacific. Sent on a search for another plane and crew that hadn't returned from a mission, Louis' plane crashed on May 27, 1943. Three of the crew made it to the life rafts -- Louis, the plane's pilot, and its tail gunner. The rafts drifted west for 47 days before landing in the Japanese-occupied Marshall Islands. For two years as a prisoner of war, Louis endured the utmost privation, humiliation, and nearly continuous torture at the hands of a particularly sadistic sergeant named Mutsuhiro Watanabe. In the hands of Hillenbrand, even Watanabe, nicknamed "The Bird" by the Allied prisoners, has a fascinating story.

Louis survived, obviously, but the journey is riveting. Hillenbrand creates a casual, humorous tone when relating Louis' youthful highjinks and running career. She clearly describes his military training and the tightness of that B-24 crew. But when the Green Hornet crashes into the ocean, Hillenbrand ratchets up the tension, the atmosphere, the all-too-vivid descriptions of hunger, thirst, medical experimentation, beatings of all varieties to what feels like an inexorable conclusion where all prisoners of war will be executed in the last days of the War. Even though you know that Louis' outcome is a good one, Hillenbrand has placed that knot of anxiety in your stomach as you listen to this incredible journey. And it is incredible; it is simply beyond belief that this young man survived. Cue the credits. Wait: Unlike those bozos "surviving" on some faked-up island, this is all real. I loved it.

I'm most familiar with Edward Herrmann as an actor, but I have heard him read one children's book. I didn't think he's particularly well-suited to books for younger listeners (good grief! he reads the Geronimo Stilton books!), because of his natural gravitas. But he is outstanding here. He delivers the author's humor in Louis' early years, then grows serious as Louis' peril deepens.

He reads everything -- from what could be mindnumbing detail of airplanes to the way the sharks circled the life rafts -- in a committed way that makes all of it easy to listen to. As Louis loses hope -- both in Japan and in the years he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder --Herrmann's compassionate voice enables us to feel his pain. Herrmann pays such close attention to the text that I clearly heard the occasional stumble where he said the wrong word. I heard them, but I didn't mind them. He was clearly deep into the story (and so was the producer)!!

I realized as I neared the end of the book that Herrmann eschews the more emotive (dare I say acting?) method of narrating nonfiction where quotations embedded in the text (i.e., are not accompanied by "s/he said") are preceded by a dramatic pause. (Simon Vance makes this choice.) I completely see it as a way to alert the listener that a direct quote is coming, but ultimately, I didn't care whether I knew something was a quote or not. It just seems so much smoother to listen to Herrmann's way.

I spent a long weekend in Boston while I had Unbroken on the mp3 player. Usually, when I am not at home my listening slows down -- more social activity and no walking time are usually the culprits. But I couldn't put it down (or turn it off, I guess). Late one night, I had to ... turn it off. It was keeping me from sleeping! Then on the plane back to Portland, I finished midflight, with no new book to start. I started listening to the beginning again.

My few, but close, readers may have noticed that I changed my "About me" section a little bit. This is because I have a new job (same library) working as an adult nonfiction librarian. Until recently, I would have said that I would not be a good nonfiction librarian since I never read it. But this is, as I've said before, no longer true. While I've got a good bit of fiction lined up on the shelves, I'm working out what nonfiction to listen to next: Mark Kurlansky, Nathaniel Philbrick, Simon Winchester ... I like history and art/culture (absolutely no business) ... suggestions?

The question I been asked the most is will I continue to listen/read books for children and teens. And the answer to that is ... of course! In case I need any prompting to read "down" (which I don't), I was just named to the 2013 William C. Morris YA Debut Award! I wonder if I can listen to these (if there are audio versions of them)?

[The photograph of Louis as a young miler was retrieved from the USC Trojans website. The image of the B-24 bomber is from the National Archives and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Be sure to check out many more fantastic photos -- as well as a map showing Louis' World War II journey -- from Laura Hillenbrand's website.]

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand
Narrated by Edward Herrmann
Books on Tape, 2010. 13:57

1 comment:

Abby said...

I loved, loved, loved this audiobook and I can't stop recommending this book to people. I listened to it earlier this year and, like you, I could not put it down. What a riveting and inspiring story!