This is a Christmas story of a different kind. At first glance, the tale has nothing to do with Christmas, actually. But then again, it has everything to do with it.
I just finished reading Laura Hillenbrand's new book, Unbroken. Hillenbrand also is the author of Seabiscuit. Her new book is better.
It's the true story of Louis Zamperini, a juvenile delinquent turned renowned long-distance runner. In the 1930s he routinely broke track records, competed in the Berlin Olympics on the same U.S. team as Jesse Owens and, among other things, met Hitler. He nearly became the first athlete to run a four-minute mile.
During World War II, he served as a bombardier on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater, and emerged unscathed from a mission during which his plane was hit 594 times by enemy fire.
But in May 1943, Zamperini's luck ran out. His bomber crashed into the ocean.
He, his pilot and another crew member wrestled themselves into two rubber rafts, which they roped together.
For weeks they subsisted by drinking rainwater and snagging an occasional albatross or fish. They fell into delirium. When their rafts were shot to pieces by a passing Japanese plane, the men patched one raft with scraps from the other and kept themselves afloat. Sharks swarmed around them and leapt into their tiny boat; the airmen clubbed them with oars.
The third crew member eventually died. Zamperini and the pilot drifted on the tides, exposed to the elements, for 2,000 miles. They wasted away to barely breathing skeletons. All told, they were lost at sea 47 days.
Their rescue turned out to be worse than those horrors.
They were captured by the Japanese, who recognized Zamperini as the former Olympian and singled him out for special abuse. The most sadistic of his guards, a cretin nicknamed the Bird, would proclaim after the war, "Six hundred prisoner. Zamperini number one."
For two years, Zamperini was beaten daily, humiliated, starved, subjected to medical experiments and made to clean excrement from a pig sty by hand. He toiled as a slave laborer. He was wracked by disease, frozen by harsh winters, taunted with threats of execution.
At the war's end, he came home to his native California a war hero. He was feted and dined. He gave speeches. He married a beautiful woman.
Inside, he was devastated. An injury he'd suffered as a POW prevented him from returning to competitive running. Nightmares of the Bird tortured his sleep.
Consumed with rage, he turned to heavy drinking and a private obsession to return to Japan, track down the Bird and kill him. His marriage disintegrated.
But Hillenbrand springs on us an ending no less astonishing than the book's first 370 pages. It's a finale I didn't see coming; Unbroken is not a religious book.
Zamperini found salvation. Not just emotional salvation, but spiritual salvation.
In 1949, his desperate wife dragged him — belligerent and disbelieving — to a crusade being conducted in Los Angeles by a fiery upstart evangelist named Billy Graham.
Zamperini was converted.
In that single night, everything changed. He went home and poured out his liquor.
Soon he salvaged his marriage and devoted his life to Christian work, which included founding a well-regarded camp for troubled boys.
He returned to Japan, as he'd plotted. There, he located many of his former tormentors, who'd been imprisoned as war criminals (although he never met the Bird again). Beaming with joy, he shook their hands and forgave their abuses.
Louis Zamperini's story is incredible, and incredibly well-told by Hillenbrand.
I'm not one of those Christians who goes around looking for slights by the supposed godless heathen media. I'm part of the supposed godless heathen media and I love them.
But Unbroken somehow has managed not to make most of the major newspaper critics' year-end lists of 2010's best books, a bizarre omission.
I can only guess at the reason: There's something about Zamperini's dramatic Christian conversion, his redemption at the hands of Billy Graham, no less, that leaves some critics uneasy.
No matter. It's a wonderful ending.
By chance, I happened to read Unbroken as Christmas approached. As I said before, it's not a religious book. It's not a Christmas book. Yet as I finished it, I couldn't help but think of that little baby born in a stable so long ago.
We live in a world ravaged by war, suffering, cruelty and despair.
But as Zamperini discovered, even in the midst of our planet's turmoils, even during the worst of our individual trials, that child whose birth we celebrate today is still able to grant peace to our hearts and good will toward others, to give us a new beginning.
Merry Christmas. I wish you peace.