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The Preface opens with the image of Louis Silvie Zamperini and two other crewmen lying on a small raft in the middle of the ocean, with sharks circling below them. The author, Laura Hillenbrand, offers background information about the men’s twenty-seven day trip and about Louie’s previous athletic accomplishments. Suddenly the men see a plane and believe they will be saved, but instead the plane begins firing ammunition at them, and the men must throw themselves into the water to avoid being shot.
In California in the summer of 1929, Louie and his brother, Pete, wake to the sound, and then sight, of a massive aircraft passing over their house. Louie notices how the famous German dirigible airship Graf Zeppelin covers the star-filled sky with complete darkness. That night, the airship is three days from completing its objective of circumnavigating the globe. It has already passed over New York, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Japan.
Louie was born in Olean, New York to Italian immigrant parents, and suffered from pneumonia before the age of two. A daredevil from a very young age, Louie jumped off the caboose of a train at age two, when his family began a relocation journey to California. As a child, Louie had many adventures around the streets and alleys of his new hometown, Torrance, California. He often stole food and other items and ran away. At times, he was mischievous just for the sake of it. He had a gift for escaping and was not easily discouraged.
Louie’s older brother, Pete, appeared to be the opposite of Louie: polite and successful. Pete took care of Louie, which was not easy because of Louie’s obvious ways of standing out from others in his community. He was shorter than most other kids at school, and was bullied for not only this, but his Italian heritage. As Louie got older, he got in more trouble, and fought with classmates and policemen alike. It was only when his neighbor was almost a victim of government sterilization of people deemed unfit to reproduce, that Louie tried to clean up his act. Even then, he couldn’t seem to do anything right. He longed for a different life and started to dream of escape.
Hillenbrand begins the book “in medias res,” or in the middle of things. It is fitting that Hillenbrand borrows a technique from epic poetry. In many ways, she presents a modern-day hero story, one that combines plot elements from both of Homer’s famous epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Much of this book is a war story, as The Iliad is. An arguably equal part of the book is about the hero (Louie) trying to return home, which is the plot of The Odyssey. By beginning the book with this scene, Hillenbrand creates suspense and helps readers know what is to come later in Louie’s life. This portion of the story also reflects some of the larger patterns in the story, including the remarkable events in Louie’s life and the ways in which his life moves quickly from one dramatic moment to another. Poseidon is the sea god who nearly drowns Odysseus and who delays his return home. In this scene and in the book, the Japanese play a similar role. They deliver their punishment from the sky and nearly kill Louie. Ultimately, as the full book will illustrate, they also prevent Louie from returning home to reunite with his family.
In a book that will go on to tell the story of the Second World War, the zeppelin covering the entire sky in darkness is symbolic and ominous. The massive vehicle is on its final leg of a trip around the world. This zeppelin is tied to Hitler, whose Nazi Party is rising. The appearance of this zeppelin foreshadows the way the German powers will cover the world with the darkness of their atrocities. The zeppelin had stopped in Japan, where hatred will also spread and will directly impact main characters in this story. This anecdote allows the author to set the historical context for the story, and also initiates a global context for this story, as we hear about the ship travelling to the countries that will become settings in this story. This also sets a context that suggests a kind of historical fate for Louie Zamperini, who will follow some of the ship’s path.
This is the story of one man during a specific time in history. While we will learn about his remarkable story, and his remarkable character, we also get the sense that Louie is one man among many who will be drawn into the historical moment of the coming world war. The early characterization of Louie does not make him seem like he will ever be a success. He gets in so much trouble and does so many misdeeds. As a young man, he has many strikes against him, but he is also resilient and is accustomed to being an underdog. We also get a strong sense of the cultural setting, too. His parents are hard-working immigrants in a new land, and Louie’s defiance might be rebellion against the prejudices he encountered as a member of a biased group. Hillenbrand also gives readers a feeling for California during the 1920 and 30s.