Update: Louis Zamperini died July 2, 2014 at age 97.
Look at the word unbroken.
An uncommon word that begins with a common prefix. Un- is so familiar that its meaning is rarely considered. Those two little letters just mean "not," don't they?
It makes good sense, then, that Laura Hillenbrand used the prefix in the title of her new biography, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. The title pays tribute to the strength of the book's subject, Louis Zamperini—an Olympic distance runner, war hero, and former POW who survived outrageous challenges, beatings, and torture with body and spirit in tact. Zamperini, in fact, is still living, at age 94 in Hollywood, California.
Hillenbrand's book has garnered much popular and critical acclaim, but some reviewers have complained that her choice is "generic," even a "goofy mushball of a title." "Not broken? That's the best you could do?" They seem to sneer at the word, insisting that Zamperini's life story is so extraordinary that it deserves a grander title.
Best known for Seabiscuit, another story of unlikely resilience, Hillenbrand has noted that she doubts that any person in history besides Zamperini has found or will find himself in the position of grasping the underside of a failing life raft while beating away sharks with warplanes shooting at him from the sky.
Perhaps those who criticize Hillenbrand's title are correct, that it should contain a more startling adjective than the one she chose. But I'd like to take a closer look at what those two letters, that little prefix un- can do.
You see, it has two meanings.
The first is "not" - as in words such as unruly, unbeatable, and unlikely. These three, by the way, aptly describe Zamperini. As a child growing up in the 1920s in Torrance, California, Louie was smoking and drinking by age 8. He picked locks and stole food out of other families' kitchens, and was often escorted home by police officers to his mortified parents. All of this transpired before he was even in high school. Unruly behavior, to be sure.
Later, his older brother Pete, whom Louie admired and who had great affection for his brother, channeled Louie's drive toward running track. Within a few short years, his life of crime forgiven by adoring fans, Louie Zamperini was the town hero as he was a seemingly unbeatable world-class competitor, training for the 1940 Olympics and edging ever nearer to breaking the world record for the 5,000-meter race. During one race, his rivals slashed his calves with their sharpened spikes, stabbed him in the foot, and gave him a blow that broke one of his ribs. Zamperini still won the race. Unbeatable.
And unlikely? Well there are too many incidents to list here, but the fact that Zamperini met Adolf Hitler in 1936, unwittingly befriended a Japanese spy while at college, and endured weeks starving in shark-infested waters are certainly unlikely.
Unruly. Unbeatable. Unlikely.
But there's another way to understand the prefix. Un- can indicate that an action or state of being has been reversed, or "undone." Words such as unsqueeze, unbind, and untangle employ that kind of un-.
When Zamperini returns home after the war, the man who was once full of verve and mischief is changed. The deprivation, humiliation, and abuse he faced as a POW didn't break him, but once he's home, something else does.
Stateside, Louie has flashbacks. He is overcome by resentment and fury. He becomes obsessed with retribution, longing to return to Japan and torment the guard who most abused him. The hatred breaks him apart. He self-medicates by abusing alcohol and mistreats his family. Like the boat that was his home for so many weeks on the Pacific, his life starts to disintegrate.
On that raft, on a day early on in the ordeal, Louie's crewmate, Mac, "snaps." He raves that they are going to die. After quieting him, Louie does something he hasn't done before: he prays, pleading for God's help to survive. His prayer is answered, only to deliver him into the hands of his enemy.
After his return home and nearly losing his family to the hatred and alcoholism that fuels him, Louie finds himself in another unlikely situation. It's 1949, and a young, attractive evangelist from North Carolina has come to town.
After a few failed attempts to persuade him to attend Billy Graham's Christ for Greater Los Angeles Campaign—and stay to the end of the meeting—Louie's wife prevails, and he reluctantly agrees to listen to Graham. Several days into the revival meeting, Louie recalls the prayer he spoke on the life raft, after Mac's panic attack.
"If you will save me, I will serve you forever," he'd prayed. It was a promise that, until then, he had failed to keep. But upon accepting God's grace at the crusade, Louie said he "felt supremely alive." The flashbacks, need for alcohol, and hatred left him and never returned. Louie later said that "surprising things began to happen" after he accepted Christ's love and forgiveness.
"I … went back to the prayer room and made my confession of faith in Christ. And then, boy, it was a complete turnabout," Zamperini said in a 1976 interview recorded for Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center archives. "I had a totally new direction of life and a whole new purpose … I wanted to be used of God somehow."
At his turn to Christ, a state of being was reversed; Zamperini was, truly, unbroken.
Jennifer Grant is the author of Love You More: The Divine Surprise of Adopting My Daughter, published in August by Thomas Nelson. She freelances for the Chicago Tribune and is currently working on her second book, to be published in August 2012 by Worthy Publishers.