Can Laura Hillenbrand Top 'Seabiscuit'?

Laura Hillenbrand’s follow-up to "Seabiscuit" looks at another runner. Alessandra Petlin for Newsweek

Laura Hillenbrand stumbled upon Olympic runner Louis Zamperini in the course of researching Seabiscuit, her debut book about the celebrated racehorse. "Louie and Seabiscuit were famous runners at the same time in the '30s," she says. "They were both at their peak and both in California." Since she was doing a lot of her digging in old California newspapers, "it was impossible to miss Louie. Eventually I came across things from later—his war saga—and I wrote his name down. I thought, when I'm done with Seabiscuit, I'm calling this guy. And that's what I did. He told me his story, and I thought, I have to do a book."

She may toss off the notion of wanting to "do" a book, but it's hardly as easy as it sounds. For 24 years, Hillenbrand, now 43, has suffered from severe chronic fatigue syndrome, a disease so enervating in her case that she's often bedridden for months and at one point could not leave the house for two years. Writing as much as a check is hard. Making the commitment to write a book is nothing short of extraordinary. Add the need to prove that Seabiscuit—with more than 6 million copies in print—was not a fluke, and the magnitude of her gamble looks astonishing.

That said, it takes only a few pages of Unbroken, Hillenbrand's marvelous account of Zamperini's adventures in and out of wartime, to see why his story so captured her imagination—and to see how well her seven years of work have paid off. The book opens in 1943 with two downed American airmen, Zamperini and his pilot, afloat on rafts somewhere in the Pacific between Hawaii and the Marshall Islands. They have been in the water for more than a month. Now the rafts are crumbling, the men are starving and delirious with thirst, and sharks are starting to circle. In most stories, that would be the climax. Not this time.

Leaving Zamperini clinging to his raft, Hillenbrand doubles back to his wild, unfocused youth, when he discovered high-school track and field and quickly began outrunning everyone else in Southern California. In 1936 Zamperini made the American team at the Berlin Olympics, and by the time of Pearl Harbor he was on pace to be the first man to break the four-minute mile.

Enlisting in the Army Air Forces, he flew combat missions over the Pacific as part of a B-24 crew until mechanical failure downed the plane on May 27, 1943. Picked up 47 days later by the Japanese, he spent two years in POW camps being starved, tortured, interrogated, and used as a guinea pig in medical experiments. Beatings were his only steady diet. On one occasion, a particularly sadistic prison warden ordered the enlisted POWs to punch their fellow officers in the face. When the beating ended two hours later, one witness estimated that Zamperini and the others had each been punched 220 times.

Released at the end of the war, he went home, got married, and briefly resumed his running career before war injuries and alcoholism derailed him. In 1949 his wife dragged him to a Billy Graham revival in Los Angeles, where he embraced Christianity and embarked on a career as an inspirational speaker and the director of a camp for troubled boys. He ran, mountain-climbed, and skateboarded into his 80s. Last year, at 92, he fractured his hip. As soon as he left the hospital, he took a three-mile hike.

Unbroken is wonderful twice over, for the tale it tells and for the way it's told. A better book than Seabiscuit, it manages maximum velocity with no loss of subtlety. With a jeweler's eye for a detail that makes a story live, Hillenbrand compresses pages of explanation into a paragraph and sometimes just a line. Even the planes come alive. One pilot describing what it was like to fly the unwieldy B-24s compares it to "sitting on the front porch and flying the house."

Hillenbrand's own prose—transparent and understated—is no less compelling. Capturing Zamperini's first impression of the Ofuna interrogation center in Japan, she writes, "Gathered in drifts against the buildings were some two hundred whisper-thin captive Allied servicemen. Every one of them had his eyes fixed on the ground. They were as silent as snow."

In her book, Hillenbrand lets Zamperini's experience speak for itself. In person, she just says flat out, "I've never met a person who had a life story like that, not even close. People don't become castaways in modern America all that often." Of course, any story that sounds too good to be true usually is, a thought that crossed her mind more than once. "People can always make mistakes," she says, sitting in the dining room of the Washington, D.C., townhouse she shares with her husband, Borden Flanagan, a professor of political theory at American University. "But Louie has the best memory I've ever come across. I would talk to him about races he had run in 1933 and he would remember his times to a fifth of a second. I would check, and he'd be right. He talked about going through a big storm on the raft just before he got captured. I found that a typhoon went right over that area at that time. And his testimony jibed with what others said. He was amazingly consistent."

Hillenbrand speaks of Zamperini like an old friend, but while they have talked on the phone more than 75 times, they have never met. Zamperini lives in California. Hillenbrand cannot travel. Her chronic fatigue not only leaves her exhausted but compounds the other usual symptoms—aching, fever, night sweats, swollen glands—with extreme vertigo and an array of cognitive disorders: "I'll think one thing and say another; I have trouble reading analog clocks." None of this is immediately apparent in a conversation with her. When you watch and listen to this slim, youthful woman with the easy laugh, it's hard to believe that a week earlier she couldn't get out of bed or take a shower. Little things belie her vivacity. Once she sits down to talk, she barely moves, faces away from the sunlight streaming through the window, and, always mindful of her vertigo, never looks down or turns her head.

The disease affects not only when and how she writes but even what she writes about. "The opportunity to live in another body by writing about it was very alluring," she says. When she first fell ill, she had been a competitive swimmer for 10 years. "I loved using my body," she says. "I lost that, and my life became bound and muted. It was wonderful to be on Seabiscuit's back every afternoon, and it was wonderful to run down the track with Louie."

And if she couldn't write? "I think I would perish. I can't imagine not having this one thing that I still have. Other than my husband, I've lost just about everything else. It is tremendously important to my emotional health that I be able to write. I can't be social, I can't be out there. The books are my way of communicating with everyone else."

Hillenbrand has learned to grasp pleasure wherever she can, be it listening to an audiobook or refining a sentence in her head until it's just right. Across the back of her house runs a second-story balcony where—on her good days—she spends a lot of time. The balcony overlooks a leafy backyard full of birds and black squirrels. "I've got peanuts up there, and I'm really popular," she says with a grin. "I've been feeding one pair of birds—Gladys and Stanley—for a good eight years." As the interview is winding down, a cardinal alights on a branch just beyond the back porch. "That's probably Stanley," she says. "This is his time of day to come by and score a peanut."