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Stories of Survival: Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) and The Arrival (Shaun Tan)

By Kellie Purcill

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, nonfiction 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)

 Recommended to:

  • Enjoyers of nonfiction
  • 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 nonfiction? Graphic novels or picture books? Is there a book which inspires you (or makes you cry) every time you read it?

About Kellie Purcill

lives way on the other side of the planet in her native Australia and gives thanks for the internet regularly. She loves books, her boys, panna cotta, collecting words, being a redhead and not putting things in order of importance when listing items. She credits writing as a major contributing factor to surviving her life with sanity mostly intact, though her (in)sanity level is subject to change without warning.

7 thoughts on “Stories of Survival: Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) and The Arrival (Shaun Tan)”

  1. Kellie: I enjoyed reading your review of Unbroken. It was a long sad read for me. After I finished it I decided it probably is not a true account as things exactly happened. It is an account of what Louie Zamperini remembered.

    There is no question Japanese POW camps were worse than any in the world. However, the part about not looking the captors in the eye surprised me. When I talked to my husband he told me US soldiers never look at superior officers in the eye. They do not look at the ground they look past their face. It made me wonder how many other things the person who told the story did not understand about military life.

    While it is still it is an amazing story, I wish she would not have taken quotations from a printed talk that was not given at the revival as we do not know exactly what the preacher actually said. Unless of course he always gave the same speech.

    I liked the book while I read it, but upon reflection I realize the most accurate parts of it have to do with the number of casualties that resulted from the use of aircraft that were not fully tested for the work they had to do.

  2. I thought Unbroken was an amazing story. As with any story written from one person's point of view, there may be inconsistencies, but I certainly don't think that makes the story less true. We all see things from our own experiences and lens. Just ask siblings about an event that happened to all of them, and you can bet that you will usually get two or more different accounts of the same event.

    Two of my great-uncles were working in the Pacific on Wake Island and were taken as civilian POWs shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. One uncle was killed a couple of years later on Wake Island, while the other lived in camps in China and Japan. He wasn't treated nearly as brutally as Louis Zamperini, but I felt that by reading the book, I could get a glimpse of what life had been like for him at that time.

    For me, the most compelling part of the book was how during the war, the prisoners went to such lengths emotionally and physically to survive. Once they were safe at home, they kind of fell apart. I wonder if that was because it was finally safe to do so. They wouldn't die if they finally let themselves feel totally what had happened to them.

    I was also interested in how people process things differently. I asked my father if his uncle ever experienced nightmares or suffered from PTSD. He was very close with his uncle and said that he avoided bitterness and hatred and suffered very little from nightmares. The descriptions of what Louis experienced following the war seem to me to describe PTSD. But I am definitely not an expert. I was touched by the changes that took place in his life and how he was able to heal from such a traumatic period in his life.

  3. I loved Unbroken when I read it and I loved Louie even more. That is a tremendous book!

    The book that has stolen my heart and my emotions for the past 20 years is Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. And the first book I ever loved was Katherine Patterson's Bridge to Terabithia.

  4. I have liked "The Glass Castle" and "Half-Broke Horses" by Jeanette Walls, "A Child Called "It"" by Dave Pelzer, "Unbroken," and "My Story" by Elizabeth Smart. A few of my favorite fiction survival books are "Homecoming" by Cynthia Voight and "These Is My Words" by Nancy Turner.

    I loved, and cried over, "The Book Thief." I love "Little Women." And I have to admit it, but cheesy, "Charly" by Jack Weyland makes me sob.

  5. I just finished A House in the Sky about a woman who backpacked around the world then decided to try her hand at being a war correspondent. She went to Somalia and was kidnapped along with a friend. The book is mainly about her year in captivity. Her resilience in the face of isolation and abuse was incredible. Great book.

  6. I just read A House in the Sky too–it was really, really good (pretty dark in some spots, just FYI). I also thought Unbroken was great. I was skeptical because of the hype around the book, but after reading it I was impressed.


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