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Born in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1967, Laura Hillenbrand was already a celebrated journalist and author when she published Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption about the life of American World War II hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini (1917-2014) in 2010. Her first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend, was a 2001 bestseller that had also been made into a widely successful film of the same name. Both books chronicle the story of an American legend through lively writing and engaging storytelling that is informed by extensive research.
Hillenbrand’s interest in extreme physical feats drew her to both stories. This interest stems from Hillenbrand’s own physical limitations. She has suffered for decades with debilitating Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and was homebound with limited physical movement for twenty-five years. Hillenbrand’s symptoms began when she was nineteen years old and a student at Kenyon College in Ohio. Symptoms from the disease forced her to leave college before graduation. For years, her access to the outside world has been extremely limited, as she has suffered with fatigue, extreme vertigo, and more. Only in recent years, following the publication of Unbroken, has she been able to make a trip outside of her immediate neighborhood of Washington, D.C.
In a 2003 New York Times interview, Hillenbrand described her research and writing as a form of “living vicariously.” She described herself as “disabled.” Even while writing Unbroken, Hillenbrand suffered with fatigue and immune system problems. She conducted her research from her home, with many phone interviews with Louie Zamperini and other sources. Some of her research sources brought information directly to her home.
Hillenbrand’s two books capture narratives of unlikely success stories who manage to beat incredible odds in their life journeys. She says these stories have inspired her, even as she has endured years of physical suffering. And Hillenbrand’s success as a writer does fall within narrative patterns that are like those of the main characters of her books—with her suffering, endurance, and success.
Hillenbrand was drawn to horses from a young age and rode horses as a girl. Her original interests as a journalist were in equine journalism. An article she wrote for American Heritage magazine reinforced her childhood love of the story of Seabiscuit, and she spent two years continuing that research and writing a full book. That book was immediately a bestseller. Hillenbrand experienced success even as she struggled with her own physical and emotional issues, as a woman whose life was limited by her disease.
In stories about her own life, Hillenbrand suggests that messages have come to her from beyond, from perhaps a spiritual source, like what she shares in Louie’s story. She reports having seen meteors at critical junctures in her life, once when she and college friends were driving in a car through Ohio and came inches from colliding with a deer, shortly before the onset of her debilitating illness.
Hillenbrand is a gifted storyteller. While her stories are nonfiction, Hillenbrand’s writing style and storytelling are as engaging as any novel could be. A reader of this style of journalism can easily forget that the story is being shaped by a writer and that the writer and her sources shape how readers perceive the story. As narratives, her books carefully traverse a line between fiction and nonfiction. Hillenbrand shapes her stories in ways that make it cohesive and fulfilling. She uses dramatic techniques that lead to happy and fulfilling endings—and in the case of Unbroken—an ending that emphasizes Louie’s belief in the role of divine intervention in his life. A reader who mistakenly considers this book to be straight nonfiction is advised to be alert to the author’s control of themes and of the story.
The story of Unbroken covers most of the decades of the 20th century but focuses mainly on the World War II years, 1941 to 1945, when Louie was in the U.S. Army Air Forces, first as a bombardier, then as a castaway, and then as a Japanese prisoner of war (POW). The story offers valuable insight into World War II and particularly the experiences of prisoners in Japanese POW camps.
Hillenbrand, who clearly appreciates the heroic characters of the World War II veterans, luckily captured their stories before the generation had disappeared. Her timing was fortuitous. With continued American involvement in different parts of the world since the Gulf War began in 1990, Hillenbrand’s story presents the clarity of good and evil forces that characterized another time in our history.
Hillenbrand could have stopped with a portrait of the glory of the Allied victory and the return of soldiers home. She does not, and instead shows the psychological toll of war on its veterans. Even while showing Louie’s triumphant defeat of his demons, Hillenbrand shows and suggests that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other impacts of war are lasting and damaging. Louie was in his eighties when she conducted her many interviews with him. By that time, after having told his story for many decades, one might wonder if details of his account are completely accurate. Nevertheless, it’s obvious his accounts represent a greater truth about what he experienced—making speculation about the veracity of details seem inconsequential (which again harkens to the fiction versus nonfiction discussion).
Unbroken focuses on the war years extends into the 1950s, and then concludes by offering events from the 1990s and even 2008. The biography offers a wide spectrum look at the 20th century. Readers see pre-World War II America, the war year, the post-war years, and then the latter half of the 20th century.
In 2014, a film version of Unbroken of the same name was released. Its writers included Joel and Ethan Coen and it was directed by Angelina Jolie. The film drew particular praise for English actor Jack O’Connell’s nuanced portrayal of Louis Zamperini.