At a Glance

Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken tells the life story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, an Olympic runner and military aviator in World War II (WWII). He survived being lost at sea and years of horrific abuse as a prisoner of war (POW) in Japan.

The son of Italian immigrants, Louie Zamperini grew up in Torrance, California, where he overcame a delinquent childhood to become a rising star in track-and-field. After performing admirably in the 1936 Olympics in Germany, Louie joined the Army Air Corps of the United States and became a bombardier in WWII. While on a search and rescue mission in 1943, Louie’s plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Ultimately only Louie and one other man survived more than a month lost at sea. They were captured by Japanese troops and sent to POW camps in Japan. During the next two years, Louie endured physical and psychological torture at the hands of his captors. Finally liberated in 1945, Louie returned to America, where he married—and struggled with alcoholism and untreated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In 1949, through the ministry of Reverend Billy Graham, Louie became a Christian and began a full recovery from his emotional wounds, which included finding the strength to forgive his captors. He spent the rest of his life leading a nonprofit organization that helped at-risk boys and also worked as an inspirational speaker.

Written by: Laura Hillenbrand

Type of Work: Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

First Published: 2010

Settings (primary): Torrance, California; WWII’s Pacific Theatre; mainland Japan

Settings (secondary): Kwajalein POW camp; Ofuna interrogation center; Omori POW camp; Naoetsu POW camp

Main Characters: Louis “Louie” Zamperini, Pete Zamperini, Russell Allen “Phil” Phillips, William “Bill” Harris, Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe, Cynthia (Applewhite) Zamperini

Major Thematic Topics: Redemption, human dignity, human cruelty, survival, forgiveness

Major Symbols: Food, the Olympics, the ocean, POW camps, B-29 bomber planes

Movie Version: Unbroken (2014)

The three most important aspects of Unbroken: Unbroken is a true story. Because of this, Hillenbrand painstakingly documented this biography to create an extensively factual account of Zamperini’s life. According to Hillenbrand, every event and situation described in her biography has been verified and corroborated by “interviewing POWs and airmen and studying statistics, squadron histories, diaries, prisoner affidavits, and other materials.” Some passages in the book can read like dry recitations of data. Still, this book gives a realistic glimpse of every major phase of Louie Zamperini’s life.

The overarching theme of Hillenbrand’s biography is Louie Zamperini’s ultimate physical and spiritual salvation. At each stage in his life, from adolescence to old age, Zamperini is at risk of being lost and/or imprisoned forever. As a child, his juvenile delinquency puts him at risk of being lost to the prison system. As a young man, WWII puts him at risk of losing his life in battle. After his plane crashes, he’s at risk of being lost at sea forever. When he is captured and tortured by the Japanese, he’s physically imprisoned and at risk of becoming a forgotten POW, stripped of his dignity along with his life. After his liberation, he’s at risk of being imprisoned by alcoholism and his twisted desires for revenge. In each instance, Zamperini is redeemed in some way and overcomes these obstacles.

Just as important to the story of Louie Zamperini is Hillenbrand’s exploration of the context of World War II. “You can’t truly understand an individual unless you understand the world he or she inhabits,” Hillenbrand has stated. “In Unbroken…I tried to paint portraits not just of individuals, but of their times.”

Pop Quiz!

Why did young Louie take up running as a sport?

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