Even though I knew that Louis Zamperini survived insupportable agonies (this can’t be considered a spoiler: the word survival is in the subtitle), Laura Hillenbrand’s taut pacing of the narrative created and sustained tension as I read along. When I came to the point where—after having been officially declared dead then later confirmed alive, the war having been concluded, his fragile health jacked up above survival levels—Zamperini is escorted home by his brother Pete, the dam of my emotions gave way; spasms of sobs shook my frame.

Over Long Beach, they sank back into the rain and landed. There, bursting from army cars, were their father and mother, and Sylvia and Virginia. The moment the plane stopped, Louie jumped down, ran to his sobbing mother, and folded himself into her. “Cara mamma mia,” he whispered. It was a long time before they let go.

Unbroken is the story of a series of rescues in Louie Zamperini’s life: how running rescued him from a mutinous youth careening with crime, the rescue from 47 days on a raft, how he was rescued from sadistic focus of a brutal war criminal, and the ultimate rescue of a tortured post-war veteran. 

Zamperini’s story is worthy of an epic poem of Homerian proportions. Hillenbrand’s prose, however, is magnificent. Here are a few of her phrases which delighted my ear:

a festival of rapid-fire diarrhea

(prisoners) gathered in drifts against the buildings

this warren of captive men

men’s bodies slowly winnowed

the sea began to arch its back under the raft

a laughing equanimity

Resilience is hard to detect in a body well nourished, well rested, and well kept. Resilience needs adversity, agony, and misery to have something to rebound from. Zamperini’s story is replete with deprivation, danger and destruction. Sharks, both human and piscine, seek to devour him. He offers bodily resistance as long as he is able. His indomitable spirit resists when his body is incapable.  

In the midst of despair in an inflated raft in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, there is a day so exquisitely described which completely changed my idea about the doldrums.

It was an experience of transcendence. Phil watched the sky, whispering that it looked like a pearl. The water looked so solid that it seemed they could walk across it. When a fish broke the surface far away, the sound carried to the men with absolute clarity. They watched as pristine ringlets of water circled outward around the place where the fish had passed, then faded to stillness.

For a while they spoke, sharing their wonder. Then they fell into reverent silence. Their suffering was suspended. They weren’t hungry or thirsty. There were unaware of the approach of death.

As he watched this beautiful, still world, Louie played with a thought that had come to him before. He had thought it as he had watched hunting seabirds, marveling at their ability to adjust their dives to compensate for the refraction of light in water. He had thought it as he had considered the pleasing geometry of the sharks, their gradation in color, their slide through the sea…Such beauty, he thought, was too perfect to have come about by mere chance. That day in the center of the Pacific was, to him, a gift crafted deliberately, compassionately, for him and Phil.

Joyful and grateful in the midst of slow dying, the two men bathed in that day until sunset brought it, and their time in the doldrums, to an end.

Louis Zamperini’s story continues to the present (he is still alive and recently spoke at my friend’s church). It’s easier to end a book when the subject has died; there is a clearly defined finish. When the main character is still alive it takes more skill to bring the story to a conclusion. Laura Hillenbrand wraps this remarkable man’s story with one final scene. The significance of it escaped me at first. I went back and reread a paragraph. Oh!  Again, emotions pressed down hard to the overflowing point. The beauty, the profound and glorious beauty of this scene was the satin ribbon that tied this story together into a perfect bow. The final sentence undid me.





National Geographic 100 Greatest Adventure Books


What are the essential ingredients in a great adventure story? The Latin root of the word, oddly enough, means “an arrival,” but adventure almost always entails a going out, and not just any going out but a bold one: Sail the Pacific on a balsa raft; pit your skills against K2; sledge to the South Pole. It is a quest whose outcome is unknown but whose risks are tangible, a challenge someone meets with courage, brains, and effort—and then survives, we hope, to tell the tale.

Like a hot air balloon, book lists inflate and ignite me.  I just stumbled across this May 2004 list. They are all thrilling, true stories. The website has a short recap of each book. Here is an abridged list of the titles (and links to Amazon) and Kindle availability. 

1.   The Worst Journey in the World (Apsley Cherry-Garrard) Free Kindle
2.   The Journals of Lewis and Clark (Lewis & Clark Expedition) Free Kindle
3.   Wind, Sand and Stars (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
4.   The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (John Wesley Powell) Kindle
5.   Arabian Sands (Wildfred Thesiger) Kindle
6.   Annapurna (Maurice Herzog)
7.   Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey) Kindle
8.   West with the Night (Beryl Markham) [Used paperback $.01] Kindle
9.   Into Thin Air (Jon Krakauer) Kindle
10. Travels (Marco Polo) Free Kindle
11. Farthest North (Fridtiof Nansen) Free Kindle
12. The Snow Leopard (Peter Matthiessen) Kindle
13. Roughing It (Mark Twain) Free Kindle
14. Two Years Before the Mast (Richard Henry Dana) Free Kindle
15. South (Ernest Shackleton) Free Kindle
16. A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush (Eric Newby)
17. Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific by Raft (Thor Heyerdahl) Kindle
18. Travels in West Africa (Mary H. Kingsley) Free Kindle
19. The Spirit of St. Louis (Charles A. Lindberg)
20. Seven Years in Tibet (Heinrich Harrer) Kindle
21. The Journals (James R. Cook) Free Kindle
22. The Home of the Blizzard (Sir Douglas Mawson) Free Kindle
23. The Voyage of the Beagle (Charles Darwin) Free Kindle
24. Seven Pillars of Wisdom (T.E. Lawrence) Kindle
25. Travels in the Interior of Africa (Mungo Park) Free Kindle
26. The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe) Kindle
27. Sailing Alone Around the World (Joshua Slocum) Free Kindle
28. The Mountain of My Fear/Deborah:A Wilderness Narrative (David Roberts)
29. First footsteps in East Africa (Richard Francis Burton) Free Kindle
30. The Perfect Storm (Sebastian Junger) Kindle
31. The Oregon Trail (Francis Parkman Jr.) Free Kindle
32. Through the Dark Continent (Henry M. Stanley)
33. A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (Isabella Lucy Bird) Free Kindle
34. In the Land of White Death (Valerian Albanov) Kindle
35. Endurance (Frank Arthur Worsley)
36. Scrambles Amongst The Alps (Edward Whymper) Kindle
37. Out of Africa (Isak Dinesen) Kindle
38. Journals: Scott’s Last Expedition (Robert Falcon Scott) Free Kindle
39. Everest: The West Ridge (Thomas F. Hornbein) Kindle
40. Journey Without Maps (Graham Greene)
41. Starlight and Storm (Gaston Rebuffat)
42. My First Summer in the Sierra (John Muir) Kindle
43. My Life as an Explorer (Sven Hedin)
44. In Trouble Again (Redmond O’Hanlon)
45. The Man Who Walked Through Time (Colin Fletcher)
46. K2, The Savage Mountain (Charles Houston and Robert Bates)
47. Gipsy Moth Circles the World (Sir Francis Chichester)
48. Man-Eaters of Kumaon (Jim Corbett)
49. Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure (Richard E. Byrd) Kindle
50. Stranger in the Forest: On Foot Across Borneo (Eric Hansen)

51. Travels in Arabia Deserta (Charles Doughty)
52. The Royal Road to Romance (Richard Halliburton)
53. The Long Walk (Slavomir Rawicz) Kindle
54. Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (Clarence King) Kindle
55. My Journey to Lhasa (Alexandra David-Neel)
56. Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile (John Hanning Speke) Kindle
57. Running the Amazon (Joe Kane)
58. Alive (Piers Paul Read)
59. The Principall Navigations (Richard Hakluyt)
60. Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (John Lloyd Stephens)
61. The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex (Owen Chase)
62. Life in the Far West (George Frederick Augustus Ruxton)
63. My Life as an Explorer (Roald Amundsen)
64. News from Tartary (Peter Fleming)
65. Annapurna: A Woman’s Place (Arlene Blum)
66. Mutiny on the Bounty (William Bligh) Free Kindle
67. Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea (Steven Callahan)
68. Castaways: The Narrative of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca Kindle
69. Touching the Void (Joe Simpson) Kindle
70. Tracks (Robyn Davidson)
71. The Adventures Of Captain Bonneville (Washington Irving) Kindle
72. Cooper’s Creek: Tragedy and Adventure in the Australian Outback (Alan Moorehead)
73. The Fearful Void (Geoffrey Moorhouse)
74. No Picnic on Mount Kenya (Felice Benuzzi)
75. Through The Brazilian Wilderness (Theodore Roosevelt) Free Kindle
76. The Road to Oxiana (Robert Byron)
77. Minus 148 Degrees (Art Davidson) Kindle
78. The Travels of Ibn Battutah
79. Jaguars Ripped My Flesh (Tim Cahill) Kindle
80. Journal of a Trapper (Osborne Russell) Kindle
81. Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle (Derval Murphy)
82. Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (Sara Wheeler)
83. We Die Alone (David Howarth) Kindle
84. Kabloona: Among the Inuit (Gontran De Poncins)
85. Conquistadors of the Useless (Lionel Terray)
86. Carrying the Fire (Michael Collins)
87. Adventures in the Wilderness (William H. H. Murray)
88. The Mountains of My Life (Walter Bonatti)
89. Great Heart: The History of a Labrador Adventure (James West Davidson)
90. Journal of the Voyage to the Pacific (Alexander MacKenzie)
91. The Valleys of the Assassins (Freya Stark)
92. Silent World (Jacques Cousteau)
93. Alaska Wilderness (Robert Marshall)
94. North American Indians (George Catlin)
95. I Married Adventure (Osa Johnson)
96. The Descent of Pierre Saint-Martin (Norbert Casteret)
97. The Crystal Horizon: Everest-The First Solo Ascent (Reinhold Messner)
98. Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains to the Columbia River (John Kirk Townsend)
99. Grizzly Years (Doug Peacock)
100. One Man’s Mountains (Tom Patey)

I’m interested in your feedback.  Which books have you enjoyed? What areas would you like to vicariously explore? Which titles look intriguing? Are the books you would add to this list?

I found this list because of my interest in Beryl Markham’s West of the Night, which I’m listening to while I garden. (I love it.) Books on my shelf: 16, 17, 27, 33, 37, 53. Books on my Kindle: every Free title. It’s a knee-slapper that someone who rarely takes mild risks loves adventure books.