SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points if you have not read the book.
Title: Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
Author: Laura Hillenbrand
Page Count: 473
Genre: Nonfiction – Biography
Tone: Inspirational, adventurous, engaging
1. Was there something special about Louie that could be seen at an early age or did his actions reflect more on a style of parenting? (e.g., climbing out the window and running down the street as a two year old with pneumonia or jumping off the train to California)
2. Louie moved from being a rambunctious toddler into what some would call a delinquent. Did you find it difficult to empathize with Louie given his devious behavior?
3. Do you think in today’s society Louie would face more trouble with the law or school authorities as a young person?
4. What are the ways in which Louie’s childhood prepared him for his time in the war?
5. What impact did seeing the German dirigible Graf Zepplin have on Louie as a12-year-old boy? Why did Hillenbrand choose to open the book with this image?
6. If his older brother Pete had not come up with a plan to get him into track, would Louie’s life have been different? How?
7. Did the Great Depression prepare Louie, and perhaps others of his generation, to persevere through the great hardships they would later face in the war?
8. Why did young Louie long to be a cowboy?
9. How was Louie able to set the NCAA record for the mile with a cracked rib, cut shins, and a bloody foot?
10. What did you take away from Louie’s time on the boat to Berlin? Can you believe he gained 12 pounds eating the almost unlimited amount of food?
11. Louie came in 7th place at the Berlin Olympics, but had such a fast stride at the end that Hitler wanted to meet him. What did you think of this experience?
12. Do you think Louie would’ve broken the 4-minute mile if it hadn’t been for the war?
13. How many of you knew Zamperini survived? Did that affect your reading of the book?
14. Did anyone find it unusual that Louie had so many photographs of these different times in his life, especially the war photos?
15. When Louie, Phil, and the crew of Superman returned from their first mission, they found that their friends’ plane crashed on take-off and the entire crew was killed. How did this affect Louie’s view of the war?
16. Were you surprised the majority of Army Air Force casualties in World War II were due to accidents? (p. 80)
17. After Superman’s dramatic return from Nauru, the plane was barely intact. Louie attributed the crew’s survival not only to Phil’s expert flying, but to the plane itself. How important was it that the crew knew how to fly their specific plane?
18. Why did the lieutenant ask the men to take the Green Hornet on the search mission, in spite of their misgivings that it wasn’t airworthy?
19. What devices did Zamperini and others use to survive and maintain their sanity during their time on the raft and in the POW camp?
20. What explains how Louie and Pete were able to survive on the raft while Mac, who seemed to have no physical injuries, did not? Are survival skills learned or inherent?
21. Why were many of the Japanese who first found Louie and Pete kind to them? Why were they surprised that the men had been fired on in their raft?
22. What do you find the most horrifying about Louie’s captivity? Were you aware of the biological experiments the Japanese were conducting on POWs and civilians alike?
23. Why didn’t the guards kill the prisoners when they knew the end was in sight for Japan?
24. Do you think there is less of a focus on Japan’s role in historical accounts of WWII than on Germany’s? If so, why would that be?
25. How was Japan able to reinvent itself after WWII? Has Germany been able to reinvent itself as well?
26. How was Louie able to readjust to life after the war? How was he able to overcome the struggles that were common to many veterans such as alcoholism and depression?
27. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was identified as a legitimate condition. Why did this diagnosis take so long to be recognized?
28. Which do you think was more responsible for Louie’s drastic life change, the idea that his wife was going to leave him or his attending the Billy Graham revival?
29. What role did Jimmy Sasaki play in the book and in Louie’s life? Why was he on campus at USC when Louie was in college and what did he do when he showed up at the POW camp? (p. 357)
30. How was Louie able to forgive The Bird and his other captors? How did you feel about the punishments the guards received after WWII? What happened to The Bird?
31. Like Louie, Bill Harris survived the war and the Japanese POW camp. Why do you think he chose to remain in the military? What do you think happened to him when he went missing in Korea?
32. Did you learn something new from this book?
33. Were there parts of the story you found difficult to believe?
34. What did you think of Hillenbrand’s style of writing? Was there anything you didn’t like in the writing or anything you wished Hillenbrand would’ve covered more deeply?
35. Are you familiar with Hillenbrand’s own health struggles (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome)? Did you know she was unable to leave her house for more than two years while she wrote this book? She tells The New York Times:
“Writing is a godsend to me that way. Without it I wouldn’t have anything. I am completely still almost all the time. A lot of time I don’t leave the upstairs. What I have is the story I’m working on. It’s a wonderful thing for me to get out of my body for a while.”
How, if at all, does this affect her writing?
36. What does Unbroken add to the already voluminous collection of WWII research? What value is there, or is there any at all, in telling the story of one man’s experience in the war?
37. Tom Brokaw coined the term “The Greatest Generation” to refer to people from Louie’s time who came of age during the Great Depression, fought during WWII, and took care of the homefront. Is this moniker accurate?
38. Why did Hillenbrand include this quote from Walt Whitman’s The Wound-Dresser, “What stays with you latest and deepest? Of curious panics, of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous, what deepest remains?” What do you think are the “deepest remains” for Louie Zamperini?
Laura Hillenbrand’s website
Laura Hillenbrand interviewed by NPR
Laura Hillenbrand interviewed by the Kenyon Collegian
Louis Zamperini interviewed by CBS
Louis Zamperini in discussion at USC Annenberg
New York Magazine review of Unbroken
The Wall Street Journal review of Unbroken
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