Unbroken, the latest book by Seabiscuit author Laura Hillenbrand, is one of the best nonfiction works I’ve ever read. The cover calls it “a World War II story of survival, resilience, and redemption.” It is all that and more.
Hillenbrand tells the story of Louis Zamperini, one of the most decorated veterans in American history. Zamperini ran in the 1936 Olympics before setting his sights on gold as a miler in the 1940 Games scheduled for Tokyo, Japan. Then World War II intervened. He became a bombadier on a B-24 in the South Pacific. This was one of the most dangerous jobs in the war—a Pacific bomber crewman had a 50 percent chance of survival.
On May 27, 1943, Zamperini’s plane crashed in the South Pacific. He and a companion spent the next 46 days on the open seas in a raft, surviving shark attacks and near starvation. He then became a Japanese prisoner of war, living the next two years in unspeakably inhumane, nearly incomprehensible deprivation. Liberated when Japan surrendered in 1945, he returned home to national celebrity.
Then his greatest battle began. Gripped by recurring flashbacks to the horrors he had survived, he slid into depression and alcoholism. His marriage nearly shattered, his wife forced him to attend Billy Graham’s 1949 Los Angeles Crusade. The message he heard changed his life.
God gave Zamperini the grace to forgive those who had brutalized him. He built a camp for at-risk boys. He was chosen to carry the Olympic torch before five different games. He remains a miraculous testimony to the transforming power of the gospel.
The woman who wrote his story models the perseverance she admires in Zamperini. Laura Hillenbrand has been victimized the last 20 years by chronic fatigue syndrome. Her case is especially severe, forcing her into a bedridden existence for months at a time and confining her to a 1,500-square-foot home. She married three years ago but was not strong enough to stand for the ceremony. It is difficult to imagine the sacrifice she made to give the world two historical works of such brilliance and beauty.
Here is an example of her perceptive genius, a passage that describes her own character as well as Zamperini’s: “Dignity is as essential to human life as water, food and oxygen. The stubborn retention of it, even in the face of extreme physical hardship, can hold a man’s soul in his body long past the point at which the body should have surrendered it.”
In these challenging days, with a struggling economy and a war on terror without end, God’s call to perseverance is clear: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9). Benjamin Franklin believed “energy and persistence conquer all things.” Charles Spurgeon observed, “By perseverance the snail reached the ark.”
Zamperini and Hillenbrand prove character, not circumstances, is the key to success. Courage is a choice.
This article originally appeared in the Reading the Culture column in The Baptist Standard