Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

Many years before my grandfather died in 2013, he was declared legally blind. He swore he could still see some, but a halo of light at his periphery was likely all he had. For years after, he continued to mow his lawn, feeling his way around the familiar space. Years later, after he and my grandmother had moved into my parents' basement apartment, he had to have his right leg amputated just below the hip after complications with his circulation. Confined to a wheelchair, reliant on his wife and son for everything, he became a shell of a man. But that shell persisted for years, singing hymns when we came over and played for him, listening as my Nanny read the Bible aloud each day, and occasionally telling stories.

The one story you could be sure of, especially as his mind slipped further into dementia, was about his time in World War II. We had friends who were traveling in Italy one summer, and whenever it was mentioned, he'd say, "Italy? I was there once - in the war," and off he'd go. He was part of a medical unit, and he'd tell us, "We'd set up behind the front and treat from there. We was in North Africa while they were in Sicily - didn't take them no time to whup that out. Then, we pushed up in at the boot and on." It wasn't identical every time, but close, and that's about as far as he'd get with the details. The rest was there, but it never emerged fully formed.

I have no idea how he got this position. He had no medical background. He had the most rudimentary of educations, probably finishing 7th or 8th grade in Tennessee. He drove a truck for the majority of his life after the war. But his war was one that differs from the recently-celebrated Normandy invasion or the movie-fied versions of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and his war was vastly different from Louie Zamperini's experience as a POW as recounted in Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken.

Hillenbrand's book is interesting and mostly well-written, lapsing only occasionally into flowery prose. It is often held up as a Christian book because of his conversion experience at a Billy Graham rally, but for the most part, it is just a story of humanity - how we, like my grandfather, keep living each day we wake to, blind, one-legged, and demented though we may become. It is also often compared to The Odyssey, which is why I was reading it now - in consideration for use when we read Homer in the fall. Zamperini definitely follows the hero's journey, and some of the obstacles he overcomes loom as large as Scylla or the Cyclops ever could. Perhaps most Odyssean was the retelling of Zamperini's emaciated body still somehow managing to hold a 6-foot wooden beam over his head for over half an hour. Much like in The Odyssey, I found myself doubting the details, but willingly suspending disbelief for the sake of the story.

To be clear, I don't doubt the atrocities Hillenbrand chronicles, nor do I question the trauma those POWs suffered. Unbroken is hard to read because of its unflinching retelling of countless cruelties, but it is important to know these truths, to probe all the corners of that Great War. The biggest thing I took from this book was a deeper understanding of how the United States could have made the seemingly unconscionable decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan. I, like most, see the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as one of the darkest truths of our history as a people; however, this book helped me to understand the feeling that without that type of desperate action, Japan may never have surrendered. I would like to think I wouldn't make that decision, but I understand how we got there.

The other thing this book reminded me of is all the stories out there like my grandfather's. The fragments and partial memories that can't be made into a book but are still worthy of a hearing. I regret that I didn't listen closer to my grandfather, that I can't tell you what he did and how he felt more specifically. That regret drives a desire now to find out what I can about how he got that job and how it felt to serve behind the front and what it was like when they whupped that little country in no time.

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