Tough story to read.
It's coming out as a movie over Christmas, I would recommend watching the movie but this is one of those books that has so many facts and backstories that you know the movie can't possibly convey, so if you're interested in history the book will have to be the way to go. For example I learned that the armed forces had almost 15,000 casualties in stateside aircraft accidents just training in new planes! It was awful, so dangerous, they nicknamed the B-24 the "flying coffin".
I also got a whole new sense of just how screwed up the 1936 Olympics were. Who's idea was it to have those hosted in Nazi Germany? It was a terrible place, German officers patroling in the stands to make sure citizens saluted correctly, other countries' national anthems were cut short. Of course, we JUST glossed over some serious human rights violations in Russia so maybe we have not gotten much smarter. That's what's so great about history, isn't it.
The first part of the book really got me thinking about what it takes to survive in extreme adverse circumstances. Starvation, dehydration, torture, illness, no dignity, no freedom, seeing everything you've worked for taken away - there would be no more olympic races. Louis was just a very determined human being. Even as a kid, he just did whatever he wanted and was sure he'd get away with it. Continued to believe in himself, the "if anyone's going to beat the odds it'll be me" kind of attitude.
It actually made me think a lot about a talk I just heard by award-winning author Clare Vanderpool, the Kansas novelists who won the Newbery Medal for "Moon over Manifest". She decided to be a writer, then started gathering pages and pages of agents and publishers telling her "no, your books have no future, you will not be published, we are turning you down." For years, she heard nothing but "no". But she said she was just a kind of person who believed everything was going to turn out. Holding a raffle ticket at an assembly, she knew her number would be called... and when it was, she turned to her friends and said "See? Told you."
Louis was stranded on a raft with two other men. One of the men started the journey out saying "we're going to die"... and weeks later, that man died. The other two were determined to keep their minds sharp, they talked and quizzed each other and sang. They were determined to focus on the here and now. He thought up new ideas to find food, catch fish, and keep away the sharks infesting the water. This book must touch on at least 1000 different ways Louis could have died, but he didn't.
After the war ended the Japanese for some reason decided not to kill all the POWs like they'd threatened to the whole time, and the soldiers got to return home. The rest of the book is about their struggle to come to terms with the events that had unfolded. Louis was plagued by nightmares and obsessed with revenge, until he decided to forgive the camp guards who had tortured him. We talked about this a lot in my book club discussion. I was kind of sad that they didn't go back and kill one of the guards, I hated that guy, but would killing him have brought them the peace they were searching for? We also talked in our group about how none of us had any idea just how bad conditions were for the WWII soldiers, even though several of us had relatives who'd fought in that war. Maybe we didn't want to pay attention. Maybe it wasn't talked about, because you don't want to open old wounds. As a society we're still figuring out how to support our veterans with PTSD, I think it's gotten better, I hope the stigma is going away, but I know we're not doing everything right and we had barely started in the 1950s.
Adversity, sacrifice, love, determination... big themes, and a big complicated story. Give yourself some real time to read this book and know that it's going to turn out with a happy ending.