As part of my Cannonball reading list, I’ve attempted to include more nonfiction works. Growing up I focused mainly on fiction and only read nonfiction in school for required reading.
What attracted me to this title is the fact that it deals with World War II and the Olympics. These are two topics I could spend all day with. The other element that caught my attention was that it’s also by the author of Seabiscuit, a story that I found inspiring. So basically, there wasn’t a lot about this book that I wasn’t attracted to. The only knock against it was the length. In trying to read 52 books in a year, the thicker the book the more trepidation I have that I will be able to finish it and the time it will take to finish it will put me behind. However, I had to do some traveling so a four-hour flight seemed the perfect time to dive into this tome. I’m so glad I did.
The story is about Louie Zamperini. He was a troubled kid from Torrance, California who, through an intervention from his brother, took up running to keep him out of trouble. Ultimately he becomes this running phenomenon. This lands him a spot in the 1936 Olympics and an eighth place finish. While he didn’t medal, his lap time was fast enough to earn a personal meeting with Adolf Hitler. What shocks me about this episode is that it reminds me of how simple it was for athletes to make it to the Olympics. You just had to be good enough in your sport to make it to the trials and then, wham! You’re on the team. Now it seems like you have to go to the right college, win a ton of competitions, and possibly have a sponsor or two in your back pocket. “sigh” I guess it was just a simpler time.
Just as he’s preparing for the 1940 Olympics, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and so, too, are his dreams of competing in the Olympics again. I don’t want to give too much away, but let me just say that even before the climax of the novel, there are several incidents that revealed just how inept the U.S. was when we began the war. The quality of training and planes that we rushed out of factories was dangerous and deadly. It was sobering to read that more men died in non-combat flying than in combat. What a waste of life!
Throughout the incredible trials Zamperini faces, I was inspired by his tenacious spirit. It was his drive to just simply survive that got him through some terrible, terrible predicaments. Hillenbrand does an amazing job crafting his story into a narrative and not a list of facts. This is avoided one of the main complaints I have against nonfiction. A lot of the time the book is one fact after another and there’s really no story. But using diaries, interviews, and other resources, Hillenbrand does an outstanding job of telling Zamperini’s story. The only part I didn’t like was how, in the end, Zamperini seems to be the star of the story and his mates who helped him survive seem to take a back seat. I don’t know if this is because that’s how life played out or just because it was an authorial intent. Luckily this doesn’t happen until the end so it doesn’t ruin the main brunt of the narrative.
I walked away from the book realizing that while I may never face or even come close to the events that Zamperini had to overcome, I can adopt the same attitude and fight through the adversities and adversaries that come my way. I can remind myself that I can face anything with the attitude that I will be unbroken.