“ALL HE COULD SEE, IN EVERY DIRECTION, WAS WATER. It was June 23, 1943. Somewhere on the endless expanse of the Pacific Ocean, Army Air Forces bombardier and Olympic runner Louie Zamperini lay across a small raft, drifting westward. Slumped alongside him was a sergeant, one of his plane’s gunners. On a separate raft, tethered to the first, lay another crewman, a gash zigzagging across his forehead. Their bodies, burned by the sun and stained yellow from the raft dye, had winnowed down to skeletons. Sharks glided in lazy loops around them, dragging their backs along the rafts, waiting.”
It was 1943. An air force bomber plunged into the ocean and disappeared, leaving only three men floating in the vast expanse of blue, shark infested, waters. The plane’s bombardier, Louis Zamperini, was one of the miraculous survivors. This is his story.
Zamperini’s life doesn’t actually begin in a leaky raft floating among sharks and into enemy territory during the war, it begins in his hometown. As a child Zamperini was a whirlwind nightmare. He stole, started fights, set fires, deflated tires, and generally caused trouble all over town.
“it was a testament to Louie’s childhood that his stories about it usually ended with ‘… and then I ran like mad.'”
Louie’s quick mind, agile feet and eternal optimism led him to try everything and anything that might seem fun or test one’s patience. As he got older, the mischief became less endearing and more aggravating. He had to find something else to devote all his energy toward before he got into real trouble. His loving brother, Pete, started to train him to run. And Louie ran, all the way to the Olympics.
As readers we feel endless anxiety and pain on Zamperini’s behalf because Hillenbrand shares the story of his whole existence. We are there when he steals pies from the windowsills of his neighbors as a child. We are there when he comes home with bad grades. We are there when he beats his first running record. We are there when he goes to war and says goodbye to his family. We are there as he ducks into shelter during the bombing of pearl harbor. And still, we are there in the months of pain and death that follow.
Despite the many chapters devoted to WWII, this isn’t a book about war. It is a book about the strength human spirit; the great extent people are capable of surviving and ultimately, overcoming.