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Training is nearly impossible on the luxury steamer Manhattan, which brings the American Olympic team to Germany. Louie is forced to train on the confined upper deck, but is constantly knocked off balance by the ship’s sway. The ship serves delicious food, and by the time Louie arrives in Germany, he has gained twelve pounds in only nine days.
The Olympic Village is magnificent and everything is perfectly controlled by the Germans. Louie knows he has no chance at a medal because Finland has been so dominant in the past. During his qualifying heat, he barely squeaks by into the finals with a fifth-place finish, feeling sluggish and bloated. Before the final, he opens an envelope from Pete, with contains a joker playing card and an ace. Pete’s letter asks him which one he will be.
Remembering this during the race, as Louie nears the finish, he decides to give an all-out kick. Starting from fourth-to-last, Louie pushes up, passing runner after runner until he moves all the way up to eighth place and finishes with the fastest American time of the year. This miraculous finish catches the eye of Hitler, who invites Louie over to his box for a handshake.
Happy with his finish, Louie hits the town with a fellow Olympian. When he spots a Nazi flag, he thinks it will be a good souvenir, as it did not hold the heavy meaning for Louie or other Americans that it would soon enough. He grabs it when two guards turn their back. He is caught but manages to finagle his way out of trouble, and the guards not only let him go, but give him the flag to keep. The press embellishes the story greatly, claiming Louie heroically escaped from gunfire and that Hitler himself gave him the flag.
As the games officially wind down, Berlin begins to look very different, as anti-Semitic signs start to appear, the Olympics village is turned into military barracks, and the first prisoners are taken into concentration camps. Louie returns to California and already has his mind on the 1500 race in the 1940 Tokyo Olympics.
On campus at the University of Southern California, Louie enjoys himself and trains hard, eyes still on the 1940 gold medal. He becomes very close with the track team, who spend much time at Louie’s parents’ house in Torrance. A somewhat mysterious Japanese man named Mr. Sasaki, or Jimmie, befriends Louie. Jimmie claims to be a student and have studied at Ivy League schools, but Louie will later learn that Jimmie’s story was an elaborate ruse. The reader is not yet told the purpose of the ruse.
Louie’s running performance improves as the season progresses. With the help of a new training regimen that involves climbing hills and stairs, he and many others start to believe that Louie can break the four-minute mile. He plans to give it his all at the NCAA championships, but opposing runners box him in and cut him with their shoe spikes. Even with puncture wounds in his food and shins, Louie still manages to win and set an NCAA record that will last fifteen years.
As Louie continues to set records, the beginnings of World War II are unfolding. The Japanese government starts to set its eyes on conquering China. One day in April of 1940, two years after Japan invades China, Louie learns Hitler has invaded Poland, releasing chaos in Europe. The Olympics, which had been moved to Helsinki, are cancelled, as the Olympic stadium is destroyed by Soviet bombs. Louie falls into a deep sadness and episodes of illness. He lets his training go and starts working as a welder.
Soon, Congress enacts the draft. Louie realizes that if he registers before the draft kicks in, he can pick his division. He feels drawn towards the sky and joins the Air Corps. He quickly drops out because flying makes him nervous and nauseous, and returns to his work as a movie extra. When he is officially drafted, he fails his physical by eating candy to spike his blood sugar. Nevertheless, he is drafted soon thereafter back into the air force. He is chosen to become a bombardier.
During this time, the FBI is informed that Mr. Sasaki, or Jimmie, was a spy for the Japanese navy, stationed in California to send radio reports back to Japan and raise money. Louie does not yet know this information. The chapter ends with Pete and Louie hearing about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Both are shocked.
Chapter Four takes the reader into an infamous historical setting, Berlin under Nazi rule. There, Louie has a direct encounter with Hitler. This connects to Chapter One, when Louie and Pete see the zeppelin cast a dark shadow over their neighborhood. Louie has a first-person experience with the conversion of a city under the Nazi regime. He sees propaganda and evidence of the realities of the world outside the Olympic village. Louie’s story is remarkable for so many reasons, including the shocking odds that one person could have experienced all that he did. He is a rare case of a person in the early twentieth century who witnessed first-hand the Nazi occupation in Germany before the war, and then experienced World War II in Japan. And these are only parts of Louie’s story that also include his Olympic participation, his survival at sea, and much more.
Hillenbrand connects the pieces of Louie’s life to create true literary value that a reader cannot always expect to find in a nonfiction text. By including Louie’s full story, from youth through adulthood, Hillenbrand offers readers a broad perspective on her protagonist. One could even argue that she has more than one full story contained within her book. Chapter Four could be considered part of the bildungsroman, a story of the hero’s formative years and education. Though Louie cannot know it, he is learning here about tactics he will see employed by the Japanese later in his life when he becomes a prisoner of war. The world of competition is another way in which Louie actually prepares for real world. Competition is not cruel, but it wakes Louie and other athletes up to what people are capable of. Later, he will not be as surprised. In terms of mythology, this chapter could be viewed as important phases of a mythological hero’s story, marked by the hero’s separation from home, initiation into the world, and return home.
Hillenbrand balances thorough research with literary storytelling to bring Louie’s story to life. Her curiosity about and engagement with Louie’s life is evident in the way she presents information. One example of this is in her introduction to Jimmie Sasaki, Louie’s Japanese friend at USC. Later in the story, the reader learns more about Jimmie, but parts of him will remain mysterious. Hillenbrand hooks the reader's curiosity about Jimmie with techniques one might find in a mystery novel, like cliffhangers Hillenbrand’s book ultimately might make a reader question whether there are clear divisions between nonfiction and fiction, or even divisions within genres of stories. With this in mind, a reader should also be aware that Hillenbrand controls the story and can distort the reader’s perception of it.
Chapter Five continues to offer information about current events alongside Louie’s story, and to show how this book offers not only a personal story but also a historical narrative about WWII. War will show Louie a great deal about human cruelty, and the capacity of people to harm others. But even before the war, Louie has already learned this. The NCAA race, where fellow runners purposefully injured him, is an indicator of the dark side of humanity, and foreshadows the cruelty he will witness in the future. As with other parts of Louie’s story, Louie’s experience here will help him navigate his later experiences. The war starts to intervene in Louie’s running life with the cancellation of the Olympics. Hillenbrand uses the opportunity to present the intersecting narratives of Louie’s life and that of the larger world, which faces entry into a world war. With the obstacle of the cancelled Olympics, Louie has little choice but to reroute his life, eventually joining the military.