Random Reads: Unbroken

Unbroken, by Laura Hildebrand, was another Book Club pick. I like history and enjoy non-fiction so I tucked into this book eagerly. I didn't expect to be so drawn in and blown away but, without a doubt, this was one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Unbroken chronicles the life of Olympic runner Louis Zamperini. Louis was a defiant, irascible child who turned into a turbulent, thieving teen who was then turned on to running by his "perfect" goody-two-shows older brother, Pete. Running turned his life around, leading to him break records and took him to the Olympics where he came in 5th place in his category. World War II put his dreams on hold when he found himself joining the Air Force as a bombardier. After many close calls, his plan went down and only he and two other men survived. They drift in a lifeboat the size of a bathtub, with no food, water, or radio, and are constantly harassed by sharks. The men go on to set a world record for how many days a person has survived being lost at sea: 45. When Louis and his friend, Phil, finally reach land (the third man had passed away) they find themselves on an island that's under the control of the Japanese. Louie and Phil go on to survive harassment, humiliation, hunger, and beatings inside the camp for over two years before the war ends and they're able to go home.

Throughout his life, the combination of Louie's push-back personality and his big brother's help and inspiration was enough to help him overcome any obstacle or hurdle in his path. After returning home, however, we see Louie falling apart. His life begins spinning out of control and we see him on the cusp of losing everything that's important to him. It's during this part of the book when I felt most discouraged. If someone like Louie can't beat the odds, then who can? I kept waiting for Pete to jump in and make everything alright, but it did't happen.

Instead, Hildebrand cuts to a scene describing a tall, blond young man who steps off a train with nothing more than a suitcase. She goes on to tell us that he was the youngest Bible college president in the country and that he had a heart for reaching the people of L.A. His name, she writes, is Billy Graham.

Up until this point, the book didn't talk much about faith. Phil, the other man to survive the crash, lifeboat, and POW camp, was a Christian; a man with a deep, quiet conviction. At one point, in the raft, Louie hears angels, and several times, he promises God that he will devote his life to God if he survives. Otherwise, that's it. So when I read the words "Billy Graham" I burst into tears. I could tell, in those two little words, where (or whom) Louie's salvation was coming from. Suddenly, the book was not about a man, but about The Man behind the man.

Louie does does make a profession of faith (but not without a fight, of course) and goes on to live a radically different life. He never does return to the Olympics as a competitor, but he brings glory to God by pouring his life and money into reaching at-risk youths. He tours the country telling others about what God did for him, never forgetting the promises that were made on that raft in some of his darkest hours. He's even able to meet with and forgive, in person, many of the prison guards that had interred him in the prison camp.

If any book can set out to prove that life is stranger than fiction, this would be it. The number of adversities faced by Zamperini are staggering, but the resulting wholeness and beauty that follows is nothing short of inspirational. Louie's life shows us that even the strongest among us are prone to failure at some point, but that our hope in Christ restores us. None of us can do it on our own, but with his guidance we can go on to do great things and leave the legacy of a life well lived.


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