Laura Hillenbrand's book Seabiscuit held the #1 spot on the New York Times bestseller list for weeks and months. For years, it was a library favorite and often a bookclub pick. Its transition to the big screen brought more awards and success. I would imagine that nonfiction writers would proceed with caution when picking a new project. How could anything else compete with such a standout as Seabiscuit? Hillenbrand herself says that she doubted that any other subject would captivate her the way Seabiscuit had, but all that changed when she met Louie Zamberini and heard his story. Right now, I bet she would struggle to pick which book has affected her more.
Zamberini was born in 1917, the younger son of Italian immigrants who found their way to California in hopes of capturing the American dream. Louie, however, seemed on his way to a life of petty theft. Reading about his frequent escapes from the police made me think of scenes from the old Rascal kids movies It wasn't until Louie was in high school that his brother convinced him that those quick legs would be better served on a track field than on a back alley. Soon he was breaking records, and everyone in their California community was cheering him on -- even the police! Eventually there was talk of the Olympics and even whispers that Louie would be the first man to break the 4 minute mile.
But as the 1936 Olympics approached, it became apparent that Louie would not represent the United States in the mile. More established runners who were at their career peaks at that moment in time would sweep the slots and make their way to Germany. Instead, Louie quickly adapted his pace and distance, securing a slot in the 5000. Hillenbrand brilliantly captures the excitement of Louie's Olympic competition as she also creates a historical backdrop of the new Nazi nationalism. Back in the states, Louie sets his eyes on the next Olympics and a college track career, but war intervenes and Louie finds himself in the air corps training as a bombardier.
As the book is subtitled, this is a story of survival - Louie, pilot Russell Allen Phillips, and Francis McNamara are the only men who survive the crash of the B-24 Green Hornet who had set out to find a missing aircraft. Adrift for more than forty days, only two survive, only to drift into Japanese territory. Louie's story while a prisoner in a succession of Japanese POW camps continues a tale of survival in the even the cruelest of conditions and illustrates how resilient the human spirit can be. As the author describes the describes the end of the war and the joyous return of POWs to thankful homes, one expects a quick happy ending. But Louie's story does not end with Japan's surrender. Not wanting to spoil the power of this book, let me only point out the last part of the subtitle - redemption. Louie's experiences should have crushed him, destroyed his desire to live, or left him embittered and hateful, and in fact, they almost do.
Let me end by saying that I've always wondered about the power of crusades like Billy Graham's. Can people really change in one evening? Never did I expect to find the answer to this question is a popular best selling book about WWII and a young athlete. I cannot recommend this book enough. You'll be appalled at the ill equipped life rafts aboard the B-24 bombers and fearful for the men as sharks follow their every move. Just as you think you can swallow calmly and continue reading, you'll find that you've entered an even worse world as the most basics of humanity are stripped from POW prisoners. As I read, "Why/" was my constant thought. And perhaps for the first time, I understood the need for the bombs that ended the war.
This is the story of one airman, but as more and more WWII vets leave us, it becomes the story of all of them -- the promising lives they had taken away from them, the dangers they faced, the bravery they showed, and the life-changing wounds, both physical and emotional, that forever changed them. And for too many of them, they never got Louie's chance to rebound and rebuild.
Our book club is discussing this book on Thursday. Unfortunately, I will be gone. If you've read this book, I would love your reactions.