In her latest issue of the Reading Corner, Trilogy Monarch Dunes member Pam Stolpman introduces us to three powerful literary works – one biography and two memoirs – that explore the incredible resilience of the human spirit.

Laura Hillenbrand’s captivating biography Unbroken tells the story of World War II pilot Louie Zamperini, a man whose strength, courage, and irrepressible spirit allow him to endure 47 days adrift at sea and over two years of physical and emotional agony as a POW in Japan.  From his spunk as an underdog defeating bullies in the schoolyard, to his unswerving bravery in the face of brutal torture, to his decision years later to forgive and re-connect with his captors, Zamperini’s saga is inspirational at every turn of the page.  Jesus Land, a memoir by Julia Scheeres, is the author’s heartfelt account of a childhood darkened by racism, emotional neglect, and her parent’s physical abuse of her adopted Black brothers; zealous Christians, the parents never offered their own children the love they dedicated to frequent missionary journeys.  Julia and her brother, David, then experienced another level of abuse during their stay at a reform school in the Dominican Republic, where daily humiliations and physical punishments were at the core of the curriculum.  Remarkably, both were able to come through these years of hardship with hearts, souls, and spirits intact, thanks to the unconditional love and support that they offered each other along the way. In the months that he pens his memoir, The Ticking is the Bomb, Nick Flynn is on the verge of first-time fatherhood.  At times the thought of bringing his newborn daughter into a world filled with suffering and horror seems almost too much to bear.  Flynn uses the pages of his memoir to explore the cruelty of humankind, and his own personal losses, terrified of risking heartbreak if he fully embraces the love of two other human beings.

Unbroken
By Laura Hillenbrand
398 pp.

Unbroken is a biography of Louie Zamperini.  Its sub-title, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, describes Louie’s life with a precision that captures his very essence.  The child of Italian immigrants, he grew up in Torrance, California, one of four children in a close and caring family.  He was a puny kid, and that and his ethnicity made him an easy target for bullies.  When the bullying didn’t stop by late primary school, he turned to his father for help.  Anthony Zamperini, a former boxer, set up a punching bag and instructed Louie in its use, then built him some rudimentary weights.  The next bully who attacked him was the last; in fact, Louie punched him hard enough to break some teeth.  Unfortunately, he showed every sign of becoming an angry, even violent teen.  His older brother, Pete, whom he idolized, recognized this and channeled Louie’s anger into running, an effort that turned Louie’s life around.  With Pete’s help Louie became the fastest American miler in high school and the top NCAA runner in college. He made a stunning showing in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where he came in eighth, but ran the fastest final lap in history in a 5,000-meter race.  The constancy and support of his parents, his brother Pete, and his two younger sisters helped Louie mold himself into a confident, resourceful man bold enough to believe he could escape any predicament.  He was almost incapable of discouragement.  When he joined the Air Force as a bombardier in WW II, his resilient optimism would come to define him.

Many called the B-24 plane in which Louie flew “The Death Coffin.”  More of these planes went missing or crashed by accident than were ever downed by enemy fire.  Louie read all he could about the workings of the plane, then added courses on survival, wound care and even how to fight sharks – all knowledge that would come into play when his plane crashed while on a mission to find another missing B-24.  There were, in the end, only two survivors: Louie and the pilot of the plane, Russell Allen Phillips (Phil).  They were lucky enough to find two rafts expelled from the plane, though there was no water and only one bar of chocolate as “provisions,” in addition to a flare gun to signal the Americans they thought would immediately come to rescue them.  When a plane did fly over and Louie fired the flare, it turned out to be a Japanese bomber that strafed the rafts for a couple of days, then left them for dead.  They were unwounded, but the single raft left was riddled with holes.  Despite this, Louie and Phil devised ways to catch fish, birds, and even capture some rainwater during the forty-seven days on the open sea.  They washed up on Japanese soil on the forty-eighth day and were taken captive; neither ever believed, at that time or during all those days at sea, that they wouldn’t return home.  Louie behaved as he had with the bullies, never showing emotion and getting up each day to face ever increasing torture.  He and Phil were transferred from camp to camp, and near the end of the war spent several months at a place called Ofuna, described in the excerpt below.

All of the prisoners at Ofuna were thin, but Phil and Louie were by far the most emaciated.  A Japanese reporter somehow learned that Louie was being held there, knew of his running career and, given the Japanese love of track events, arranged a race between Louie and a Japanese runner.  When word got out, the other prisoners tried to help Louie, as did some of the ‘good’ guards, one person giving him a coat to use as a blanket at night, another slipping him an egg or another protein snack.  As weak as he was, Louie began to strengthen his legs, lifting his knees high as he walked in the compound.  When the day of the race came he had no thought of winning, but when he lagged far behind he suddenly felt a new lightness of his body, how easily it moved.  The years of humiliation boiled up in him and he seized his opportunity.  When the prisoners and even some guards began chanting for him, he made up the lag, sprinted past his opponent and finished well ahead of the other runner.  He didn’t see the club coming before it knocked him down, but his thought before losing consciousness was that it had been worth it.

Louie and Phil both returned home at the end of the war.  They had been reported dead long before they reached Ofuna, yet neither of their families would allow a death notice or obituary to be placed in their local papers, because both knew their boys were alive – they could feel the echo of their presence, and said they would know if these two men were, in fact, dead.  Some years after Louie Zamperini returned home, he found it within himself to forgive his captors.  He made a visit to one of his former prisons that then held, as war criminals, many of the very guards who had brutally tortured him.  His purpose was to express his forgiveness to them directly and simply talk with them about how they had experienced those years.

There are only a handful of books that I would categorize as the best books that I have ever read.  This is one of those books.

Excerpt:
(Describing Ofuna, the ‘Special Camp’ for officers, world famous athletes, and sons of generals)

There was something spooky about this place.  Gathered in drifts against the buildings were some two hundred whisper-thin captives.  Every one of them had his eyes fixed on the ground.  They were as silent as snow.  The Japanese were abundantly clear about one thing – in this place they could and did do anything they wanted to their captives.  “They can kill you here,” Louie was told.  “No one knows you’re alive.”

This wasn’t a POW camp.  It was a secret interrogation center called Ofuna, where ’high value’ prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, starved, tormented, and tortured to divulge military secrets.  There were rules about every detail of life, from the folding of blankets to the buttoning of clothes; eye contact and speech were allowed only with the guards.  The rules reinforced isolation and total obedience.  The slightest violation – brushing one’s teeth, folding one’s arms, talking in one’s sleep – would bring a beating.

The only breaks in the silence were the screams coming from the interrogation room.

Jesus Land:  A Memoir
By Julia Scheeres
355 pp.

Jesus Land is the story of the love between the author, Julia Scheeres, and her adopted Black brother, David.  It is also an unblinking account of the author’s bizarre upbringing by a mother who would return from her missionary work, giddy with the love and joy that her daughter, Julia, craved, only to say that she “looked forward to the day when all the children had left home, and God would be her only family.”

The book opens after the author’s three older siblings have left, and Julia is living at home with her two adopted brothers, David (her parents did not want a black child, but it looked more Christian of them to accept one), and the older, already delinquent Jerome, adopted so that David would have ‘one of his own kind’.  Her father has moved them into a new house in an isolated Indiana town, the kind of place it is common to see hand-scrawled signs, seductive as the old Burma Shave highway placards we struggled not to miss in the fifties.  As Scheeres describes it, they hurtle down the country lane while Amy Grant croons ‘Sing Your Praises to the Lord’ over tinny car speakers and along the length of the cornfield read a series of plywood squares bearing the messages: The end is near: REPENT. This here is JESUS LAND.  Her mother, who grew up poor, frequently serves up ‘Garbage Soup’ with dessert of apple pie made entirely with Saltine crackers. Evangelistic pop music blares throughout the elaborate intercom system that connects all the rooms of the house and, when set to “listen,” allows monitoring of all that is said in those rooms.  The music is so loud, played so constantly, that ordinary conversation is impossible.  Meals are eaten without a word spoken, often as the dad is still in his Porsche, racing home from the hospital where he is a well-known and accomplished surgeon.  If it has been a “Wait until your father gets home” day, he takes David or Jerome to one of the out buildings for brutal physical punishment.

All the more poignant for its matter of fact understatement is the author’s story of her own abuse by Jerome:  “Over the years I’ve noticed a pattern.  After dad beats him, Jerome comes to find me.  I’ve never told.  I don’t want to be responsible for Jerome’s yelps of pain, or fresh welts on his back.  You don’t do that to your brothers, you don’t nark on them.  We both bear our scars.” This comes near the end of what could be a finished work, but is just the end of the first half, whose last Chapter, Freedom, brings to mind the lyrics of the sixty’s song:  ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.’  Jerome has long since run away for the final time; David gains his freedom by being sentenced to an Evangelistic reform school in the Dominican Republic; Julia, desperately missing David, provokes a situation that gets her sent there, as well.  Julia and David spend years in a world of midnight brainwashing, grueling physical punishments, and a system designed to strip them of every shred of dignity and individuality.  But they are together; and through sheer controlled rage, Julia finally brings them out, a “family” of two.

Both halves of this narrative are, by turns, brutal, poignant, humorous, but most of all, loving.  Scheeres brings us this story with no apparent bitterness, only sadness and anger for David’s undeserved suffering, her own ache for love from her mother, and David’s longing for them all, or, in the end, just for him and Julia, to become a “real” family, modeled on his favorite TV show, ‘The Brady Bunch.’  This is not one of those currently popular poisonous invectives against religion.  In fact, as far as this reader can tell, Scheeres retains a healthy respect for God as she winds her way through the mystical maze that might, ultimately, make her one of the blessed.

Excerpt:

I tried to be a good sister to him.  When he returned from the workshop or pole barn with fresh welts on his back, I’d sit beside him on his bed while he curled into a ball and stuffed his fist in his mouth.  I’d sit there in silence, not touching him, not knowing what to say, what to do, who to call.  There was a 1-800 number printed on the inside cover of the phone directory to report child abuse, but belting your kid was hardly considered abuse in that time and there was no 1-800 number to report emotional injury.

All I could do was bear witness as his body shuddered and tears seeped out under his long lashes.  When he reopened his eyes, I wanted to be the first thing he saw.  Me, gazing down at him with a fragile smile.  Asking if he’d like a glass of water.

The Ticking is the Bomb
By Nick Flynn
262 pp.

Flynn calls The Ticking of the Bomb “a memoir of bewilderment,” a book written at a time of impending fatherhood for him, and a time in which Abu Ghraib is constantly in the headlines.  Through this book he explores both this new era of terror and the uses of torture, and his own personal terror of becoming a father and committing to the woman he loves. It becomes clear, as this memoir progresses, that Flynn’s bewilderment is at the capability of human beings to inflict such pain on each other, whether on the small scale within a family, or on the larger scale through torture, which has been going on for as far back as we have records.

The Ticking is the Bomb initially came about when Flynn was asked to travel to Turkey to record testimonials from prisoners who had been held at Abu Ghraib.  His book advance to write this account was to be combined with a personal memoir of his own life; thus this memoir is as much about the current use of torture and the history of torture since the 15th century, as it is about the fragility of Flynn’s own childhood and his fears of emotional commitment.

Flynn, himself, was born into a family whose father deserted him six months after his birth, and whose mother committed suicide when he was twenty-two, leaving him with no road map, no model for becoming the parent and partner he so desperately wanted to be.  He says, “My fear, my terror with being a father, is that I will look at my daughter, and not feel a thing.  That I will just get in my car and drive away – from her and from myself.”  Flynn fears that in choosing to love a woman – whether his partner or his daughter – he risks losing, then missing her, as he still deeply misses his mother. After his mother’s suicide he writes, “I still had a body, but not one I could enter, not one I could use – think of a snake, how it leaves its skin behind, and the skin looks like a snake at first, and you step on it and it powders.” Flynn re-connects with his father when he is twenty-seven, working in a homeless shelter where his father has been staying.  He is stunned to learn that his own father had been a victim of torture while spending time in Federal Prison for forging bad checks.  Flynn forms a certain bond with his father after this discovery, though he knows that he cannot “save” him – from living on the street or from alcohol.

There are two rare wonders in this memoir, which so seamlessly interweaves the small human story with the larger one of humanity as a whole.  The first wonder is Flynn’s depth of knowledge of such diverse subjects as Sufi philosophy, history, war, torture, literary novels, paintings, child development, and psychology. The second wonder is that all of this diverse information has a purpose and a place in the memoir, and that Flynn is able to share it – and enrich our own knowledge – in a way that makes it easily absorbable.  For example, his mother’s suicide note quotes Sufi philosophy; and Flynn’s  description of Pierro della Francesca’s fresco of 1445 depicting a man being tortured for information, reveals that torture by no means began with Abu Ghraib.  When we have finished this mesmerizing book, we have not only been pierced through the heart, but have also gained understanding and knowledge of a nearly incomprehensible amount.  There is no other book I’ve reviewed that combines such rare qualities.

Excerpt:

Here’s a secret:  Everyone, if they live long enough, will lose their way at some point.  You will wake up one morning and find yourself lost.  This is a hard, simple truth.  When it happens, when one day you look around and nothing is recognizable, when you find yourself alone in a dark wood having lost the way, you may shake your fist at the sky and call it fate, or karma.  If you’re lucky you’ll remember a story you heard as a child, the trick of leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, the idea being that after whatever it is that is going to happen in those woods has happened, you can then retrace your steps and find your way back out.  But no one said that you wouldn’t be changed, by the hours, the years, spent wandering those woods.

 

Click here to read additional book reviews by Pam Stolpman.