An unstoppable prankster as a child in California, an unbeatable runner in the Berlin Olympics, a bombardier in World War Two, Louie Zamperini was always a force to be reckoned with.
“All he could see, in every direction, was water. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean… Louie lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of this plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.
The men had been adrift for twenty-seven days.” (p. xvii)
Laura Hillenbrand’s ‘Unbroken’ is a true life, non-fiction title which relates the childhood, teen years and Army Air Forces training of Louie with affection and clarity, with the strength of the story coming to the fore when Louie is captured by the Japanese as a prisoner of war (POW). Louie’s treatment as a POW is clearly detailed, focussing on his determination, friends, mental athletics and personal acts of rebellion through the war.
While that may be more than enough to fill a book, Hillenbrand continues to chronicle what happened in Louie’s life on his return from the war. Louie shared with Hillenbrand the coping mechanisms he used – alcohol, temper, marriage, family, revenge – to readjust and, when that failed to work, survive each day. What happens next in Louie’s tale is as astonishing and courageous as what happened on the other side of the Pacific from his home. It is about faith, hope, revenge, forgiveness and being absolutely, terribly, humanly breakable, yet still unbroken.
Hillenbrand includes in the epilogue a summary which gives a great summary of Louie’s attitude towards life and how he lived it:
“When Louie was in his sixties, he was still climbing Cahuenga Peak every week and running a mile in under six minutes. In his seventies, he discovered skateboarding. At eighty-five, he returned to Kwajalein on a project. “When I get old,” he said as he tossed a football on the Kwajalein beach, “I’ll let you know.” When he was ninety, his neighbors look up to see him balancing high in a tree in his yard, chainsaw in hand… Well into his tenth decade of life, between the occasional broken bone, he could still be seen perched on skis, merrily cannon-balling down mountains.” (pp. 383-4)
‘Unbroken’ is slow-paced in areas, however it is possible to skip forward to specific parts and chapters (as detailed in the contents) and it is worth it for the POW and post-war sections alone.
Shaun Tan’s ‘The Arrival’ is the only picture book I cry reading, and I sob every single time I revisit it. Considering there are no words at all within its pages, it’s quite a feat. ‘The Arrival’ details a man’s escape/immigration from a war-torn country (leaving his wife and daughter behind) to an unknown land. The story charts his struggle to leave his family, then his country, the stress given by the immigration officials, then entry into a totally foreign landscape. As co-gazers on this strange and baffling country (curling architecture, what looks like a kettle is some sort of incendiary torch, bizarre and fanged creatures at your window, challenging customs), we are scared and worried and lonely with him, hoping for rescue, comfort, relief, a safe haven and friend, frame by tiny or double-paged frame.
Shaun Tan has created an intimate, whimsical and touching story using no words at all, just expressions, a tree through seasons, a child’s smile, a folded piece of paper, the flight of birds – just to name a few. ‘The Arrival’ is a literally wonderful book, suitable for readers and early-readers alike. The art is beautiful, and pulls on my heartstrings and empathy on every page.
‘The Arrival’ is about surviving in unexpected places, wherever you may find them, however you got there, placing the reader in the position of main character, into every other character encountered, and pushes what we learn about belonging into our own lives after we’ve closed the cover.
‘The Arrival’ is an essential addition to any bookcase.
Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand (2010)
- Enjoyers of non-fiction
- Anyone with an interest in the Pacific WW2 events
- Anyone wanting to be uplifted
Not recommended for:
- Anyone afraid of the ocean, sharks, running, war or hope
- People who don’t like to read about sad or difficult situations
Rated: PG15 – Louie’s time as a POW is given in detail, he was not treated well. Themes of war brutality, survival mentality, alcohol abuse, revenge, hope, redemption.
The Arrival, by Shaun Tan (2006)
Recommended to: Anyone with a pulse
Not recommended for:
- Kids under the age of about 8 (symbolic drawing of war as long monster-type tails, or giants with flame-throwing machines may upset young children)
- Possibly people (adults or kids) with separation anxiety
Rated: PG for under 8’s. Gently handled themes of war, family upheaval and separation, differences, new beginnings, confusion and belonging.
Which books about survival do you love and recommend? Do you read non-fiction? Graphic novels or picture books? Is there a book which inspires you (or makes you cry) every time you read it?