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Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The book communicates a message that humans are capable of surviving terrible hardships, including physical, emotional, and psychological hardships. The subtitle of the book underscores this theme. Across the book, Louie, Phil, and others endure unspeakable circumstances, including extreme danger, cruelty, starvation, and other suffering. Hope and optimism often aid survival, as is the case on the raft journey when the men do not allow themselves to dwell on the plane crash or on the danger they face. They remain determined to survive. At times during his POW experience, Louie loses his optimism, but he still survives. Ultimately, he comes to believe that his survival is aided by divine powers. Besides Louie, many men in the book face terrible physical and emotional hardships, but they are able to survive them. More largely, the book shows that the Americans survived World War II and that human dignity survives attempts to extinguish it.
Love is a powerful force that will triumph over hatred. Across the book, Hillenbrand illustrates the strength, beauty, and triumph of love. Love is a force that allows people to thrive and to succeed. Familial love is seen, including in the devotion of Louie’s family members to him while he is away at war. Their love keeps them powerfully attuned to Louie and allows them to believe that he is alive, even when the War Department has reported him as dead. Brotherly love is also seen between and among the soldiers. Louie and Phil have a powerful coexistence. Later, Louie shows great respect and love for many fellow POWs. The book also presents the portrait of an entire nation’s love for their soldiers, as many people sacrifice for, mourn for, and celebrate with the soldiers. Finally, the book presents religious love, in the form of God’s love for humans and also in the form of Louie’s compassionate love even for the guards who tortured him. Forgiveness is a form of love that allows Louie to break free of his emotional turmoil and rage.
The cruel and ugly atrocities of war are presented in this book. Hillenbrand often interrupts her narrative to include statistics about the number of senseless and cruel deaths that occurred as a result of World War II. The book devotes a great deal of time to showing the inhuman treatment of prisoners of war. War transforms many of the guards into sadistic creatures who show no respect for the dignity of other human beings. Even after the war is over, soldiers have to live with the physical and psychological impact of the war experience. Hillenbrand shows that, while Louie recovers from these experiences, Louie’s story is exceptional.
Hillenbrand shows that a person’s life is an unpredictable adventure, a captivating story in which each of us is the hero. While the story focuses on the remarkable odyssey of a modern-day hero, the story also allows readers to understand human life more broadly. Louie’s story educates readers on what each of us is capable of facing, doing, and surviving. The story educates readers about the ways in which life and history might turn suddenly, for good and for bad. It also shows the obstacles we can face, in the forms of natural and human obstacles, and also in the forms of our own inner demons.