Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Unbroken: Bad Boy Makes Good

(reflections on UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand (Random House, 2010).)

"Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food and oxygen" writes Laura Hillenbrand in Unbroken (183).  At that point in the book, her subject Louie Zamperini has fought his way from being the scorned Italian kid with a face "designed by committee" (8), to running the mile for the USA at the Berlin Olympics, to surviving the crash of his B-24 bomber with two crew members followed by forty-seven excruciating days in a raft without provisions, fighting off sharks.  He is just beginning two and a half years of deprivation and physical degradation in a series of Japanese prison camps -- each one worse than the one before.

He maintains his dignity with fellow captives by small acts of rebellion.  They steal cigarettes and sugar, they teach obscenities to an obtuse guard who thinks that he's learning conversational English, and they try not to stagger and fall when beaten by fists, baseball bats, and the heavy buckle of a belt.  Once they even perform a musical version of Cinderella, calling the ugly stepsisters Dia Rere and Gonna Rere (269).  POWs sink barges, communicate in silence by codes, and even knock a train off its tracks (242-243).  Near the end of their captivity, they plot to assassinate their most furious tormentor Mutsuhiro Watanabe, a.k.a. "the Bird" (231).

But forgiveness -- of others, and of oneself -- is also essential to the feeling of self-worth, and that's a truth that underlies Louie Zamperini's life-long struggle.  We see this early in Louie's life when he gives up his "one-boy insurrection" that pains his family so, to devote himself single-mindedly to running the mile.  We see it in the shame and physical decline of Louie's fellow survivor on a raft who devoured his companions' rations while they slept in their first night at sea. Ultimately, we see how impotent hatred of his former captors eats at Louie from the inside during his first years back from the war.  When his wife Cynthia, who has already filed for divorce, drags him to see a gaunt young evangelist named Billy Graham, Louie feels "indignant rage" at the evangelist's assertion that it's false for anyone to imagine himself to be good:
I am a good man, he thought.  I am a good man.

Even as he had this thought, he felt the lie in it.  He knew what he had become.  Somehwere under his anger, there was a lurking, nameless uneasiness, the shudder of sharks rasping their backs along the bottom of the raft.  There was a thought he must not think, a memory he must not see.  With the urgency of a bolting animal, he wanted to run. (373)
By sustaining this narrative of Louie's spiritual growth, Hillenbrand  pulls us through the book, even through stretches where the accumulation of descriptions of physical degradations makes the reading painful.

Pleasures abound in the book, just in her writing.  Even knowing how the race will turn out, I was breathless turning the page to read the conclusion of Louie's mile race on a fatally hot afternoon in New York (25).  An air battle becomes vivid in her retelling of it (95-96).  She implies a metaphor in her description of the last, eeriest, worst prison camp when Louie first sees it on a cold day: two hundred "whisper-thin men" are "gathered in drifts" up against buildings, "silent as snow" (192).

Hillenbrand also searches for the good.  Sympathetic Japanese guards show courage when they shield men from abuse (185, 196, 245).  Caring for an injured duck named Gaga enlivens the prisoners (203).  A Japanese pilot salutes his target Louie rather than fire, and they later become friends (348). In the last months of the war, Louie and his fellow prisoners are struck with sympathy for the Japanese civilians who live near the prison camp, who are also starving, broken, burned, and sick.

There is also a dark side to dignity.  Hillenbrand shares an insight from a book of an earlier century, Frederick Douglass's autobiography, where he shows how a good woman, unable to think good of herself so long as she dominates an innocent human being, learns to despise the slave, and she becomes a "demon" of racial hatred (196), angered especially by any signs of the boy's intelligence and spirit.  Watanabe, "The Bird," reveals his inner struggle in his actions, and, decades later, in a televised interview.

Along the way in her narrative, Hillenbrand divulges details about that time in American history that we might prefer to forget.  The pseudo-science of eugenics that shaped policy in Nazi Germany and Tojo's Japan also shaped policy in the California of Louie's childhood, and he had good reason to fear being sterilized along with other "bad boys" of Italian descent (10).   We learn how the tens of thousands of airmen lost in combat over the Pacific is dwarfed six-to-one by the numbers of those lost to mechanical failures and human error (80). We get a tour of the "flying brick" called the B-24 with all its design flaws, and we get a strong sense of how awesome the new B-29 is in its superior speed, altitude, size, and its moral effect on the Japanese: the Japanese phrase for B - 29 "B Niju Ku" contains a double meaning, as "ku" means both "nine" and "pain" (248).  A survivor of the Bataan death march reflects on the landscape approaching Hiroshima by train, post A-bomb, a progression from trees to trees without leaves, then without branches, then without trunks, then nothing: "Nothing! It was beautiful.  ...I know it's not right to say it was beautiful, because it really wasn't.  But I believed the end [to cruel captivity] probably justified the means" (320).

The acknowledgments are worth reading closely, because Hillenbrand describes with gratitude all the eyewitnesses and family members who helped her to write the book, including many who didn't live to see its publication.  Louie Zamperini himself lives on, "apparently immortal" (399).

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