“He had survived”: Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken

unbrokenI finished Unbroken last night in a good long stretch of reading — it’s a testament to the inherent drama of the story and the pace, if not necessarily the style, of its telling that I wasn’t tempted away from it by the myriad distractions that are always lurking. And this is in spite of knowing more or less how it turns out, since it’s no secret that Louis Zamperini survived his many ordeals. The title itself is kind of a spoiler too, isn’t it? But it’s also a key to Hillenbrand’s theme, and probably to the book’s commercial success: Unbroken seems somehow such an archetypal American success story, with its athlete-turned-soldier hero facing both physical and spiritual hardships, refusing to bow down to tyranny, and ultimately triumphing while learning to give thanks to God. It would be a string of clichés if it weren’t all true!

Even knowing the story was true didn’t keep me from sometimes feeling its details were just a bit too pat, and I ended up feeling that there was something overdetermined, not about Zamperini’s experience (which wouldn’t make any sense) but about his story being the one Hillenbrand tells. I was glad when, late in the book, she alludes to a feature of the book that is at once inevitable and problematic: talking about Allen Phillips, who also survived the crash of their B-24, who drifted across the ocean and into captivity along with Louie, and who then lived through an equally hellish captivity, Hillenbrand says,

He never returned to Japan, and he seemed, outwardly, free of resentment. The closest thing to it was the flicker of irritation that people thought they saw in him when he was, almost invariably, treated as a trivial footnote in what was celebrated as Louie’s story.

There’s nothing wrong in principle, of course, with focusing on one man among many, and the celebrity sparkle of Louie’s Olympic history makes him a natural choice, but even in Unbroken we meet a lot of other soldiers whose stories sound like they deserve their own books, and many of their stories are in fact literally condensed into footnotes, and after a while the spotlight on Louie started to seem pretty arbitrary to me. I don’t mean in any way to diminish his courage, but I wasn’t convinced that his story really was as extraordinary as all that, given the company he clearly kept.

I realize this isn’t really a fair criticism: Hillenbrand’s book simply is about Louie — he’s her protagonist, and why not? Focusing on him also lets her do things that a historical, rather than biographical, approach could not: although she does tell us quite a bit about the larger numbers and broader contexts, zooming in on the harrowing experience of one individual keeps things personal. It’s precisely the strategy often heralded in historical novels — it’s exactly what, to pick a non-random example, The Narrow Road to the Deep North does. Or Waverley, which Carlyle praised for teaching us that “the by-gone ages of the world were actually filled by living men, not by protocols, state-papers, and abstractions of men.” Or, for that matter, All Quiet on the Western Front. Instead of soldiers, we get one particular soldier, and that helps us grasp just what the war was like. (To be fair to Hillenbrand, too, she does try to do justice, if only in passing, to the other men whose stories are incidental to her main narrative, especially Phillips.)

thelostEven granting that it’s perfectly legitimate to single out one person, one story, though, I think Hillenbrand could have made something more — something greater — out of her materials if she’d made that selectivity a more self-conscious part of her book. Unbroken is a really competent account of Zamperini’s war-time experiences, but that’s all it is. Given the research and other labor involved in putting it together, that’s still an accomplishment. But once I started thinking about the stories not told, I couldn’t help comparing Hillenbrand’s fairly pedestrian result (philosophically, intellectually) with Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost, which also focuses on one story at the expense of many, many others, but which is always aware, even haunted, by its own exclusions. Here’s what I said in my post on The Lost,

Early in the book Mendelsohn points out that “it is naturally more appealing to readers to absorb the meaning of a vast historical event through the story of a single family.” Such, clearly, is the strategy of this book. And yet we are often reminded, because Mendelsohn too is often reminded (sometimes, deservedly, harshly), that in focusing so exclusively on six of six million, others whose lives were equally “specific” are being sidelined, turned into secondary characters. He interviews Jack Greene, “born Grunschlag,” who once dated Ruchele:

I can tell you, he began, that Ruchele perished on the twenty-ninth of October 1941.

I was startled, and immediately afterward moved, by the specificity of this memory.

I said, Now let me just ask you, why–because you remember the date so specifically–why do you remember the date?

As I wrote down Ruchele–>Oct 29 1941, I thought to myself, He must have really loved her.

Jack said, Because my mother and older brother perished on the same day.

I said nothing. We are each of us, I realized, myopic; always at the center of our own stories.

There is no way, of course, to include every story, but Mendelsohn’s strategy of frequently spiralling away from the “main” narrative, following memories and anecdotes as they come into his mind or come from those he is interviewing, is a constant reminder that each story we do hear is one branch on a vast spreading tree. The sheer scope of the horror and loss would be overwhelming even if it were possible to represent it all, so instead we get glimpses, again and again, so that like Mendelsohn himself, though we are focusing on the Jagers, we can never forget that there were many, many others.

The Lost is a very different book from Unbroken — in many ways, but especially in its attempt to do more than simply reconstruct a series of events. Instead, it uses those events, and Mendelsohn’s own attempts to find out about them, as opportunities for deeper explorations into questions of memory, loss, and meaning. I think The Lost is a truly great book; Unbroken just tells a good (gripping, sometimes shocking, neatly uplifting) story. I don’t think Hillenbrand tried and failed to do more — rather than faulting her for her straightforward journalistic approach, I’m really expressing my renewed appreciation for what else nonfiction can do.

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One Response to “He had survived”: Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken

  1. Theresa says:

    I enjoyed your analysis of Unbroken and agree with your points about Hillenbrand’s approach. And The Narrow Road to the Deep North was one of my favorite novels from last year. As an academic historian, I like reading both historical fiction and nonfiction–so many good subjects out there.

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