Sunday, February 5, 2012

Unbroken and MAUS: WWII Nonfiction

I seem to have found myself on a kick of WWII nonfiction, starting the year with Unbroken, and quickly following that with The Complete MAUS, and eager to begin Night.  Unbroken and MAUS address different parts of the war, the Pacific theater and the Holocaust, making for an interesting, well-rounded perspective.
I wasn't planning on reading Unbroken.  It was one of those books that had gotten so many amazing reviews that I instantly felt skeptical.  That didn't stop me, however, from giving the book to my dad for Christmas.  His dad had flown in the same type of plane (B-24) in WWII as Louis Zamperini (albeit in a different location) which made the story all the more interesting to him.  He began reading it and telling me how interesting it was at about the same time I found out that Zamperini would be coming to my son's high school to speak.  That was something I didn't want to miss out on.  Not only did I buy the book, but I also started an trial: when I couldn't read, I listened; when I couldn't listen, I read.

Unbroken is quite a page-turner.  I had to keep reminding myself that these were actual events.  Some of the events in the Pacific Ocean reminded me of Life of Pi as far as the implausibility, but this was real.  Unbelievable, except that there's a guy who lived to tell about it.

Not a great photo, but that was Louie in
the wheelchair--a fab fellow!
If you've hung around me enough, you may remember that I'm not a big memoir person, nor am I an ocean person.  Fortunately, these weren't the slightest factors while reading the book.  Of course, it isn't a memoir, but it doesn't even reek of the touchy-feely vibe I occasionally get from memoirs.  And the ocean? Maybe it was because there weren't a bunch of nautical terms, maybe because he was enduring it instead of enjoying it, but I wasn't bothered at all.

There were a couple of points that I was afraid the writing was going to bog down, (I thought that his childhood and the POW sections were both a tad longer than they needed to be,) but it never once got to the point that I wanted to set the book down.  It's a book that I'd recommend to all but the most sensitive readers.

Seeing Louis Zamperini and hearing him speak was such a good experience.  He just turned 95, but he is still so quick and funny. He talked of his youthful shenanigans, of meeting Hitler at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and his too-eventful time in service.  He told of a time when he was asked if his time as a POW had any positive outcomes, and he remarked that it certainly had--it had prepared him for 55 years of marriage!

I heard about The Complete MAUS sometime last year when I saw it on a list of "must-reads" for high school students.  My eldest is in 10th grade this year, and so my ears were wide open for more engaging books on important topics (his school's required reading seems to be very Shakespeare oriented--which is fine except for the fact that the imbalance means the kids are missing out on so many other wonderful experiences.  It's up to me to make up for that!  Good news for me is that my influence doesn't end after his senior year!)  I'm still trying to get my 15 year-old to read this, but my then 12 year-old did read it and was greatly impacted.

Perhaps it is inevitable, more than 50 years after the Holocaust, to feel like you've heard it all before--though the story doesn't get old, when MAUS is lumped together with all the other books about the topic, this one doesn't feel quite as shocking, quite as big--but it is important nonetheless.  To stop reading about the Holocaust is to say that these people's stories don't matter, that the people themselves don't matter.  By keeping the story alive, and making it new for each generation, you are honoring the lives of all those affected by the trauma.

(photo credit/more about Spiegelman)
Seeing the story through my son's eyes reminded me what it was like to hear of Auschwitz for the first time.  While MAUS deals with the generational affects of the Holocaust almost more than with the events themselves, it gives a very realistic picture of Nazi Germany as well as the lasting consequences.

If you haven't ventured into graphic novels, this is a good place to start....combine some history with a new format and see what happens.  The story is full of things to think about--more contemplative than shocking, more layers and depth than you might think.


  1. I'm glad you brought up Maus. My 13-year-old stepson LOVES graphic novels, and it might be time to introduce him to this one. :D

  2. It obvs. has some very serious themes/topics, including father/son relationships, but I think it's a fabulous format for taking it all in. I just need to get my 15 year-old to make some time for it now!

  3. Melody, you've done a great review on all two books. You see I love non-fiction, particularly dealing with WWII and for me, nothing about the holocaust will be too much. I still cannot come to terms with how one man could influence and exert so much power over his fellows to cause such atrocities on so grand a scale. And if MAUS will bridge the generational gap and tell the story in a different way, all the better. Our kids have to know and accept that the world must be a peaceful place for the development and progrees of mankind and that never again should they allow such evil to hold sway. I think the father/son relationship is good, I have three boys who are quite tykes, including a a boisterous 14-year old. I'll get the two books for my TBR. Thank you, Melody

  4. I'm so happy to hear that Louis Zamperini is still around to talk about his experiences. What an incredible experience it must have been for you to see him!

  5. If you are still looking for an interesting non-fiction read... try LOST IN SHANGRI-LA by Mitchell Zuckoff. How amazing to have seen Louis Zamperini in person!

  6. celestine, I'm always awed by Holocaust stories. How they survived--not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually--is beyond my comprehension. Thanks for the comment. :)

    JoAnn, I was thrilled to be able to see him. He's one of those people that has a magnetism about him--something that you assume after reading Unbroken, but made much more believable just from hearing him talk. I took 2 teens (my 15 year-old son and nephew) and they both enjoyed it a lot too--were laughing and smiling.

    Sarah, I'll look it up! Thanks for the rec. Have you reviewed it on your blog?


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