As anyone who sees my Goodreads list knows, I am nothing if not eclectic in my reading habits. Murder mysteries abound, as do series based on one character (though I got tired of Kinsey Milhone long before she reached the end of the alphabet). Scandinavian authors are represented in excess of their demographic reality, despite their prevalence of hard-drinking protagonists, and translations, both good and lumpy.
But the two books I have read, and finished, in tandem most recently couldn’t be more different from my usual fare or from one another, and they are two of the best books I have read in a long time. In fact, if you saw me recently, I probably bludgeoned you with my recommendation that you read “Unbroken” by Laura Hillenbrand. Regardless of your age, interests, gender or usual preferences in literature, this is a book I recommend.
I will admit that the fuss of late over “The Greatest Generation” had left me somewhat cold. To me, each generation has its greats, and it’s not-so-greats, and they should be celebrated or ignored accordingly. But “Unbroken”, the story of one man, Louie Zamperini, his experiences in World War II, and peripherally, those of his compatriots, sheds a different light on that generation, and has changed my thinking.
Zamperini was a troubled kid, and found himself as a runner, eventually reaching Olympic success just before the war. He was a bombardier in a B-24 aircraft, and the sheer statistics of deaths in training, not to mention combat, in these ill-made planes are staggering. Yet the men flew them, day after day, mission after mission. They had no choice.
Zamperini’s plane was downed, and he and others spent weeks on a raft floating in the Pacific without food or water. Their rescue led to greater, and greater and greater difficulties, until it is hard to imagine anyone surviving the experience. But clearly some did, to tell this tale.
An interesting sidelight is Hillenbrand’s parallel story of the families of some of her protagonists, back home in the States, knowing nothing for months or even years of the fates of the missing.
At the end of the book she touches on the experiences of the men who survived and returned home, as well as on the fates of some of their captors. We understand something now of the post-traumatic stress that members of the military may experience, and there are some medical and non-medical interventions, but back then they and their families were on their own, and the results were often not pretty.
My father was a sailor in the Pacific Theater, and the war was the seminal experience of his life. He had a collection of funny, and sometimes exciting stories he told. There was the time he received a medal as a member of the “Guinea Pig” unit, seeking out mines after the war and, unfortunately, finding one. He was able to turn the ship and prevent it crashing into the harbor after it lost its power in the explosion. Then there was the seaplane taking him back home that was so overloaded it couldn’t get out of the water, and had to keep trying as the men tossed out more and more of their baggage…but nothing of what he saw in China or Japan when he reached there. Or what he felt about it all.
My mother is more voluble. She is still angry that he volunteered, when he had a safe job in the defense industry, and left her to cope with two small children.
So I hope you will check out “Unbroken” and get a better appreciation of that Greatest Generation.
And next week, a book as different as chalk from cheese, “The Goldfinch”.