Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.
The presence of cruel danger can be found in the world. This is danger that intentionally threatens a person’s health and safety. This motif is seen in war but also outside of it. In nature, this motif is especially seen through the constant presence of sharks who circle the raft and who try even try to attack the men. Danger is also seen across the book in the rise of dark forces in Nazi Germany and in Japan. War cultivates an atmosphere that is dangerous and threatening, particularly in terms of physical violence but also in terms of intentional physical deprivations and dehumanization. In the POW camps, Louie sees how the guards become like human sharks whose presence puts the men in constant danger and under constant threat. Mitsuhiro Watanabe (“the Bird”) fully embodies cruel danger. Even before war, Louie had some experience with cruel danger in the world, including even in the NCAA championship, when another runner purposely spiked his leg.
The book repeated shows how human beings can survive terrible hardships. At times survival can seem quite miraculous, even to the point of being aided by divine intervention. Louie survived risks even as a young child. Once he was in the war, he and his crewmates are able to land their B-24, Spider Man, even after the plane is riddled with Japanese bullets. Louie miraculously survives the forty-seven-day raft trip with limited supplies, the POW camps, disease, starvation, abuse, and the constant threat of death. Eventually, he also survives the emotional effects of the war and his abuse of alcohol. In the end, Louie sees his survival as having been aided by God.
Across Louie’s lifetime, his family members and friends enable his survival. Louie does not live his life alone; he lives it in constant connection with other friends and family members. These relationships help him survive and success. Louie’s brother Pete helps Louie become a successful runner. Louie survives the Japanese attack on Spider Man because of the tight relationships among the crew members. After the Green Hornet crashes, Louie and Phil survive because of the ways in which they keep each other’s minds and spirits alive, and because of their constant belief that they can survive together. In Japan, the prisoners of war develop strong relationships that allow them to survive. Louie’s family buoys his spirits, even when he is separated from them for years. Louie’s wife and Phil’s wife also help the men continue living.