I received this book as a Christmas gift. When I first saw the description of it being about WW2 and sharks I thought it may be the same story as In Harm’s Way, which I read about 10 years ago. It turns out this is a totally different story. Apparently, there were lots of GIs in WW2 who had to deal with being stuck in the Pacific Ocean with the sharks.
Unbroken is currently the #1 bestseller for nonfiction. It reads like fiction, and I have a hard time believing much of it is nonfiction. Considering that the current top ten books for nonfiction also include memoirs of George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and a book about how heaven is real, I guess they use the term “nonfiction” very loosely these days.
Hillenbrand is a talented author, no doubt about it. However, anyone with even the smallest degree of skepticism or critical reading skills will be able to see how improbable her account is of the whole truth. Everything happens just right. She, as the author, is omniscient, telling us what people were thinking (or when they sweat or how they felt) in the 1940s, even shortly before their deaths. The level of detail is amazing, especially since her primary sources of information are interviews conducted about 60 years after the events took place. Many conversations from the mid-20th Century are given as if word for word, in quotation marks even.
Finally, the primary character in the book, Louis Zamperini, became a born again Christian after the bulk of the events portrayed in Unbroken took place. Why is that a problem? There are two reasons in my opinion. Looking back on history with his born-again mindset colors the past whether he intends to or not. The prior hardships suddenly become harder, the prior victories more victorious, the prior descent into wickedness much more wicked, and the ascent into Jesus’s arms all the more glorious. The other reason the past history can become distorted is that Zamperini made his living from telling his WW2 story and his subsequent conversion to Christ. Whether intentional or not, it becomes impossible not to embellish. Zamperini probably even came to believe his subsequent stories. The mind is funny that way. There are many others who have done the same. See, for instance, the Paul H. Dunn story.
Criticisms aside, Unbroken is still an amazing read. I can certainly see why it is a best seller. You will probably enjoy it more if you leave your skepticism at the door, and read it like you would read fiction. The book reads like a Hollywood movie. Personally, I would have preferred a PBS documentary instead, but more people seem to prefer the former.
If you are interested in the Pacific War and/or Japan then there is much to find here. I have been to many of the places described in the book (Omori, Ofuna, Kofu, Sugamo). They are completely different now (and I was completely unaware of the POW camps in Omori and Ofuna) than they were during the war, but it is fascinating to reflect on the vast changes. I was aware that Sugamo Prison became Sunshine 60, something I reflected on nearly every time I gazed at Sunshine 60.