TERRY GROSS, host:
For seven years and in 75 separate interviews, author Laura Hillenbrand talked to the now 93-year-old Louis Zamperini about his extraordinary experiences during World War II. The interviews were always conducted long-distance over the telephone, a fact Zamperini didn't think much about until he read an article about Hillenbrand. The article talked about her 2001 bestseller "Seabiscuit" and about the fact that Hillenbrand suffers from chronic fatigue syndrome, a condition so debilitating it's pretty much confined her for years to her row house in Washington, D.C. When Zamperini realized the effort it was taking for Hillenbrand to interview him, let alone write a book about him, he sent her one of his three Purple Hearts.
Hillenbrand's book about Louis Zamperini is called "Unbroken." Book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Laura Hillenbrand is shaping up to be the Woody Guthrie of contemporary narrative historians. It's not just that she has an affinity for singing the ballads of dark horses, who through tenacity, skill and a lot of heart turn themselves into folk legends. It's also that Hillenbrand has a gift for recovering the spirit of mid-20th century America - its despair, sure, but also its humor and its graceful refusal to put on airs.
"Seabiscuit" was an almost impossible act to follow, but as Hillenbrand says in the acknowledgements to her new book, "Unbroken," she knew she had found her next subject when she spoke to a then-octogenarian Louie Zamperini on the phone and the wisecracking spirit of a bygone age came through loud and clear. I'll be an easier subject than "Seabiscuit," Zamperini told her, because I can talk.
He sure can and sure did - in seven years' worth of interviews with Hillenbrand. The tale Zamperini has to tell, augmented by mountains of diaries, letters and official documents, is a stunner. In a nutshell, it goes like this: Zamperini was born in 1917, a son of working-class Italian immigrants who made a life for themselves in Torrance, California. Louie was a juvenile delinquent from the get-go, always stealing food from neighbors' houses and concocting homemade explosives. Louie's older brother saved him by forcing him to try out for track in high school; all those years of scampering from the cops turned out to be excellent training, and Louie eventually competed in the 1936 Olympics with Jesse Owens. Hitler even gave Louie a congratulatory nod.
When World War II broke out, Louie joined the Air Corps as a lieutenant stationed in Hawaii, where he learned to operate the bombsight on a B-24, an unwieldy plane known to flight crews as The Flying Coffin. His pilot, Russell Allen Phillips - known as Phil - was respected as a damn swell pilot by the other men, and Hillenbrand vividly describes a few knuckle-biting missions where Phil's skill nursed the injured bomber back to base, sans brakes or fuel. But Louie and Phil's luck ran out on Thursday, May 27, 1943, when on a rescue mission in the middle of the Pacific an engine died and their plane went down, killing all the crew onboard but Louie, Phil and the tailgunner, nicknamed Mac.
For a record 47 days, the men floated on two, then one, rubber rafts. Sharks circled constantly, scraping their fins under the bottom of the rafts. Water came, when it did, from the skies. Food consisted of raw fish and a couple of unwary albatross that alighted on the rafts. They were strafed by a Japanese fighter and tossed around in a typhoon. The men lost half their body weight and drifted for some 2,000 miles on open water. Mac didn't make it. The other two men survived to become prisoners of the Japanese - subjected to starvation, torture and slave labor. Because of his Olympic fame, Louie became the special target of a sadistic Japanese corporal who dedicated himself to shattering Louie's spirit.
Hillenbrand writes here with authority and her distinctive sensual intensity. You smell the stink of the maggoty fish the prisoners of war were forced to eat, you feel the horror of the void out on that raft. But "Unbroken" aims for something beyond vicarious secondhand suffering. Through the lens of Louie's story, Hillenbrand explores how people fight to preserve their essential selfhood - their dignity - in the most extreme circumstances. She describes how the prisoners of war fought back against their captors - stealing newspapers to find out war news, farting when they were forced to bow to the emperor. She gives ample space to the home front too - the everyday courage of Louie's mother, who refused to believe he was dead; his father and brother, who schemed to buy a boat after the war and search every island in the Pacific until they found him.
Louie Zamperini is still with us. He even ran with the torch at the Olympics in 1998 in Japan. He's lived on into an age where we're more skeptical about heroes. Inspiration is considered an attribute of middlebrow popular literature, not the highbrow stuff. Maybe that's why, as I couldn't help but notice, The New York Times buried its review of Hillenbrand's moving and, yes, inspirational book deep in the middle of the Sunday Book Review.
Don't let the cynics intimidate you. Louie's story - and Hillenbrand's unforgettable new book - deserve pride of place alongside the best works of literature that chart the complications and the hard-won triumphs of so-called ordinary Americans and their extraordinary time.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand.
You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org.