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Reader’s Guide: UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand

Tuesday, July 22nd, 2014

Hillenbrand_Unbroken We’ve been holding our breath. Cherishing our hardcover copies. Reading the news updates. And now watching the movie trailer. There’s no doubt about it- Unbroken is the unparalleled book for readers of all interests. After more than three years on the New York Times bestseller list, we’re looking forward to seeing the paperback on bookshelves starting next Tuesday, July 29th.

Fan of the book? New to the book? Doesn’t matter! We have the discussion questions to keep the conversation going for years to come. Enjoy!

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Louie’s experiences are singular: It’s unlikely that one person will ever again be in a plane crash, strafed by a bomber, attacked by sharks, cast away on a raft, and held as a POW. And yet the word most often used to describe him is “inspiring.” What does Louie’s experience demonstrate that makes him so inspirational to people who will never endure what he did? What are the lessons that his life offers to all of us?

2. Is Louie a hero? How do you define heroism?

3. In Louie’s boyhood, he was severely bullied, then became a delinquent and hell-raiser. In these experiences, did he already display attributes that would help him survive his wartime ordeal? Did he also show weaknesses or tendencies that foreshadowed the struggles he would face postwar?

4. Do you think Louie’s athletic career helped prepare him for what he would face in war?

5. Louie was especially close to his brother, Pete, who devoted himself to him. If Pete hadn’t been there, what do you think would have become of Louie? Does Pete deserve credit for shaping Louie into a man who could endure and survive his Odyssean ordeal?

6. Hillenbrand explores the extraordinary risks faced by America’s World War II airmen: 52,000 men killed in combat, 36,000 killed in noncombat aircraft accidents, and a stunning 15,000 killed in stateside training—at times, an average of 19 per day. Men faced a 50 percent chance of being killed during combat tours of only 30 to 40 missions. Were you aware of the dangers faced by airmen in the Pacific war? What facts and stories were most surprising to you?

7. What are your feelings about Mac? Do you feel sympathy for him? Anger? If you endured the trauma of a plane crash and were placed in a situation that you knew very few men survived, might you have reacted as he did? In the end, do you think he redeemed himself?

8. When Louie, Phil, and Mac were on the raft, a key factor in their survival was optimism. All three men were young and able-bodied, veterans of the same training, experiencing the same hardships and traumas, yet Louie and Phil remained optimistic while Mac was hopeless, seemingly doomed by his pessimism. Why are some people hopeful and others not? How important are attitude and mind-set in determining one’s ability to overcome hardship?

9. What did you find most remarkable about the things Louie and Phil did to survive on the raft?

10. After more than forty-seven days on the raft, the men lost half their body weight and were rendered mere skeletons. Yet they refused to consider cannibalism, which had not been uncommon among castaways before them. Would you, in the same situation, ever consider cannibalism? If it could ensure that two men survived, when otherwise all three would almost certainly perish, would it be a moral decision?

11. Louie believed he was the beneficiary of several miracles, among them his escape from the wreckage of his plane, the fact that he and the other men were not hit with bullets when their rafts were strafed, and the appearance of the singers in the clouds. What is your interpretation of those experiences?

12. The POWs took enormous risks to carry out thefts, sabotage, and other acts of defiance. Men would risk their lives to steal items as trivial as pencil boxes. What benefit did they derive from defiance that was worth risking death, or severe beatings?

13. In the 1930s and 1940s, Germany and Japan carried out what are arguably among the worst acts of mass atrocity in history. What leads individuals, and even whole societies, to descend to such a level? What motivated the notoriously sadistic POW camp guards in Japan, particularly the Bird? Do you think we all carry the capacity for cruelty?

14. After the war, Louie would say that of all the horrors he witnessed and experienced in the war, the death of the little duck, Gaga, was the worst. Why was this event especially wrenching for him and the other POWs?

15. Louie, Frank Tinker, and William Harris planned to escape from Ofuna, walk across Japan, steal a boat, and make a run for China. It was a plan that very likely would have ended in their deaths. Was it foolish, or did it offer a psychological benefit that was worth the enormous risk?

16. Louie joined a plot to kill the Bird. Was he justified in doing so? Would it have been a moral act? Do you think Louie could have found peace after the war had he killed the Bird?

17. Unbroken reveals that, under the “kill-all order,” the Japanese planned to murder all POWs, a plan that was never carried out because of the dropping of the atomic bombs. The book also explores the lengths to which the Japanese were prepared to go to avoid surrender. How did the book make you feel about America’s use of the atomic bomb on Japan?

18. “Anger is a justifiable and understandable reaction to being wronged, and as the soul’s first effort to reassert its worth and power, it may initially be healing,” Laura Hillenbrand wrote in an article for Guideposts magazine. “But in time, anger becomes corrosive. To live in bitterness is to be chained to the person who wounded you, your emotions and actions arising not independently, but in reaction to your abuser. Louie became so obsessed with vengeance that his life was consumed by the quest for it. In bitterness, he was as much a captive as he’d been when barbed wire had surrounded him.” Do you agree?

19. Many of us struggle to forgive those who have wronged us, especially since forgiveness is often so difficult to find. What makes it so hard to let resentment go?

20. “What the Bird took from Louie was his dignity; what he left behind was a pervasive sense of helplessness and worthlessness,” Hillenbrand continued in her Guideposts article. “As I researched Louie’s life, interviewing his fellow POWs and studying their memoirs and diaries, I discovered that this loss of dignity was nearly ubiquitous, leaving the men feeling defenseless and frightened in a world that had become menacing. The postwar nightmares, flashbacks, alcoholism and anxiety that were endemic among them spoke of souls in desperate fear. Watching these men struggle to overcome their trauma, I came to believe that a loss of self-worth is central to the experience of being victimized, and may be what makes its pain particularly devastating.” Do you agree?

21. Hillenbrand wrote that among the former POWs she interviewed, forgiveness became possible once each POW had found a way to restore his sense of dignity. Was this what Billy Graham gave to Louie? If so, what was it about that experience, and that sermon, that gave Louie back his self-worth?

22. Do Louie Zamperini’s wartime and postwar experiences give you a different perspective on a loved one who was, or is, a veteran?

23. Why do you think most World War II literature has focused on the European war, with so little attention paid to the Pacific war?

Share your Unbroken book reading memory or thoughts with us on our Facebook page!

Father’s Day Special: Gift Giving Suggestions from Our Reading Circle

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Hillenbrand_UNBROKEN With only a few days remaining until Father’s Day we’d like to take a moment to share some of our top book picks for the special men in our lives. Share some of your gift giving suggestions with us on our Facebook page!

Kesley Tiffey is sending her a copy of Dad is Fat to her father and stepfather. She also sincerely hopes they find the title humorous.

Rick Gingrich thinks his father will enjoy Birdmen by Lawrence Goldstone, the story of the intense rivalry that fueled the rise of American aviation. In the past, some of his favorite gifts have been The Craft of Stone Brewing Co. and Fearless.


Leigh Marchant thinks her father will enjoy reading the New York Times bestseller Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. She will also gift copies of Stress Test by Timothy Geithner and Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull this year!

Maggie Oberrender
looks forward to giving her grandfather Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd and Never Go Back by Lee Child.

Jess Bonet can’t wait to take a trip home to give her father a copy of Smoke at Dawn by Jeff Shaara and Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman this year!

And Selby McRae is going with Fierce Patriot by Robert L. O’Connell this year as well as The 40s: The Story of a Decade by the New Yorker for her father. He loves history and nonfiction.

Jane’s Bookshelf: Stories of Bravery & Inspiration

Friday, October 5th, 2012

JVMWhat does a publisher at the world’s biggest publishing house read for pleasure? (And how does she find the time?) Jane von Mehren is the Senior Vice President and Publisher of Trade Paperbacks at the Random House Publishing Group. Every now and then, she’ll be featuring her favorite reads in her Reader’s Circle column, Jane’s Bookshelf—books that she thinks you’ll love, whether you read them solo or with your club! And if you’re on Twitter, you can follower her tweets at @janeatrandom.

One of the things I love about reading nonfiction is that it allows me to enter the lives of people from different times and places – and to be inspired by them. How could you not be moved by Frank McCourt’s ANGELA’S ASHES with its searing details of poverty and familial love? Have you ever heard of George Dawson, a man who learned to read at the age of 98? Reading his story in LIFE IS SO GOOD is to take a journey through the 20th century as he lived it. And how could you not cheer for Debbie Rodriguez and the girls of THE KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL? I doubt many of us would have had the determination to go half way around the world to change others’ lives as Rodriguez did.Unbroken

And it isn’t just personal memoirs that offer us inspiring stories. Laura Hillenbrand’s UNBROKEN recounts the life of Louis Zamperini – incorrigible teenager, Olympic athlete, World War II POW – and his incredible journey into extremity. Along with Louis’s story, she offers us a slice of history, which makes our reading experience that much richer. Like Hillenbrand’s first book SEABISCUIT, Elizabeth Letts’s THE EIGHTY-DOLLAR CHAMPION tells the story of a horse that held America spellbound. Snowman, who was rescued from a truck bound for the slaughterhouse, went on to climb to the very top of the show jumping circuit and become a beacon of hope during the Cold War era.

CatherineGreat pbBiographies of famous men and women provide intimate portraits of the call to greatness: think of Robert Massie’s CATHERINE THE GREAT, Walter Isaacson’s STEVE JOBS, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s NO ORDINARY TIME about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II, or Douglas Brinkley’s WHEELS FOR THE WORLD about Henry Ford and his founding of the Ford Motor Company. The richness of each of these works lies partly in the biographer’s ability to show us that these men and women are human like you and me, with faults and weakness that exist alongside their brilliance. And that duality, I promise you, provides for much to discuss, even debate, with your fellow book club members.

As I thought about these books, it struck me that they share a common thread: they are at heart about bravery. They are about trying something new, withstanding pain or hardship, or finding a way to succeed in the face of tremendous odds. These are themes that run through many of my favorite novels as well, which I was reminded of by Tara Conklin’s THE HOUSE GIRL, a debut novel that I just finished reading and loved (it will be published next February by William Morrow). The book interweaves the stories of two women – Josephine, a slave who attempts to escape from her master, and Lina, a corporate lawyer who discovers Josephine’s story as part of her quest to find a lead plaintiff for a slavery reparations case – who make choices that put them in danger, but also require them to figure out how to be true to themselves.

What are your favorite inspirational stories? What kind of bravery inspires you most?

A message from UNBROKEN author Laura Hillenbrand

Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

Unbroken_hcDear readers,

Eight years ago, an old man told me a story that took my breath away. His name was Louie Zamperini, and from the day I first spoke to him, his almost incomprehensibly dramatic life was my obsession.

It was a horse—the subject of my first book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend–who led me to Louie. As I researched the Depression-era racehorse, I kept coming across stories about Louie, a 1930s track star who endured an amazing odyssey in World War II. I knew only a little about him then, but I couldn’t shake him from my mind. After I finished Seabiscuit, I tracked Louie down, called him and asked about his life. For the next hour, he had me transfixed.

Growing up in California in the 1920s, Louie was a hellraiser, stealing everything edible that he could carry, staging elaborate pranks, getting in fistfights, and bedeviling the local police. But as a teenager, he emerged as one of the greatest runners America had ever seen, competing at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he put on a sensational performance, crossed paths with Hitler, and stole a German flag right off the Reich Chancellery. He was preparing for the 1940 Olympics, and closing in on the fabled four-minute mile, when World War II began. Louie joined the Army Air Corps, becoming a bombardier. Stationed on Oahu, he survived harrowing combat, including an epic air battle that ended when his plane crash-landed, some six hundred holes in its fuselage and half the crew seriously wounded.

On a May afternoon in 1943, Louie took off on a search mission for a lost plane. Somewhere over the Pacific, the engines on his bomber failed. The plane plummeted into the sea, leaving Louie and two other men stranded on a tiny raft. Drifting for weeks and thousands of miles, they endured starvation and desperate thirst, sharks that leapt aboard the raft, trying to drag them off, a machine-gun attack from a Japanese bomber, and a typhoon with waves some forty feet high. At last, they spotted an island. As they rowed toward it, unbeknownst to them, a Japanese military boat was lurking nearby. Louie’s journey had only just begun.

That first conversation with Louie was a pivot point in my life. Fascinated by his experiences, and the mystery of how a man could overcome so much, I began a seven-year journey through his story. I found it in diaries, letters and unpublished memoirs; in the memories of his family and friends, fellow Olympians, former American airmen and Japanese veterans; in forgotten papers in archives as far-flung as Oslo and Canberra. Along the way, there were staggering surprises, and Louie’s unlikely, inspiring story came alive for me. It is a tale of daring, defiance, persistence, ingenuity, and the ferocious will of a man who refused to be broken.

The culmination of my journey is my new book, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. I hope you are as spellbound by Louie’s life as I am.

Laura Hillenbrand

Bertelsmann Media Worldwide