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5 Books like Unbroken: Triumph of the Spirit

Mandy Baldwin itcherLaura Hillenbrand’s 2011 novel tells of the struggle to survive in hostile terrain under war and is just one of an entire genre of memoir which celebrates the ability of humankind to overcome every form of hardship, emerging stronger than before. Books like ‘Unbroken’, ‘Empire Of The Sun’ or ‘Richard’s Feet’ show that the human spirit burns brightest in it’s darkest hour. ~ Mandy Baldwin

In Leaps and Bounds

In 1943, a bomber crashes into the Pacific, leaving only one survivor: Louis Zamperini.  He had already defeated all odds stacked against him when he turned himself from juvenile delinquent to world-class athlete performing at the Berlin Olympics.

But he must now survive hostile Japanese troops and shark-infested waters. The ultimate adventure story? Well, maybe you would think so. But, in fact, this is the real tale of someone who, by considering himself indomitable, very nearly became indestructible.

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Books Similar to ‘Unbroken’…

‘Empire of the Sun’ (J G Ballard, 1984)

Image Source: Leanne Leveaux

Based upon the author’s personal experiences of being imprisoned by the Japanese as a child, this is possibly one of the most poignant books ever written on the subject. Jim, a boy from a comfortable middle class English family based in Shanghai, is almost systematically destroyed due to the war. 

Only the last remnants of childhood, his memories of the code of honour learned in his school, and the love absorbed from his mother, keep him sane until he is rescued.

With it’s vivid depiction of childhood warped by war, this is a book like no other.

Similarity Match: 85%
Gives a searing image of life at the mercy of the triumphant Japanese military, but the innocence of Jim adds poignancy.

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‘They Shall Not Have Me’ (Jean Helion, 1943)

Image Source: Amazon

This is French painter Jean’s autobiographical account of life as prisoner in a Nazi war camp; it was only written after his escape.

It opens with the disintegration of his infantry division which is eventually captured and sent to labour camps in Germany. The events hint at the horror stories which would emerge from concentration camps, although at the time the stories were thought to be nothing but propaganda.

Jean’s art had always previously been his escape from misery. Therefore, the attempt to cling to humanity and the experience of being without any means of practicing his art give an additional chill. But Jean’s ambition to succeed as well as survive, drove him. He would become a fluent German speaker in order to ingratiate himself with his captors and as a means to assist in his escape.

This is not a continuous narrative but a collection of short stories which Jean intended as ‘sketches’ of life in the camps. The humour and courage amid all attempts to dehumanise the slave labour force are incredibly moving.

Similarity Match: 80%
Strikingly similar in it’s depiction of the degradation of a man used to being regarded as a leader in his field, but sharply underlines the differing culture of his captors.

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‘Richard’s Feet’ (Carey Harrison, 2015)

Image Source: Amazon

A pair of feet, burned beneath the wreckage of a crashed jeep, are all that was thought to remain of Richard Thurgo.

But the man who walks across Soviet Germany in 1948 looking for the woman he loves has only re-invented himself. In this newly shattered world, he will become an underworld Don, feeding off the chaos around him.  

And he is not the only one because nobody is who they claim to be, and this makes post-war Germany behind the Iron Curtain the perfect place to hide.

Once an enemy of Germany, he is drawn back there by the fascination it has always held for him and he will ultimately become a poster-boy for post-war success.

Similarity Match: 75%
Ruthlessness and determination to survive the chaos of war, but this book carries forward to the German ‘economic miracle’ of the 1960s and ’70s.

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If You Like ‘Unbroken’, You Will Like…

These books explore aspects of survival during the Holocaust. A book like ‘Unbroken’ represents struggle while these show passive resistance, but they all give the same sense of awe as humanity overcomes darkness.

‘Even In Darkness’ (Barbara Stark-Nemon, 2015)

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Perhaps you thought you knew all about the Holocaust, but this story of Klare Kohler will prove you wrong.  Half memoir/saga spans a century and begins by giving a depiction of the life of an ordinary, comfortable middle class Jewish family in 1920 Germany. Their lives quickly become destabilised as the 1930s lead to the full horror of the events of the 1940s.

Continuing after the war as Germany is reconstructed, it explores the ways in which Klare can rebuild her own identity in the country which, despite everything, she considers home.

With snapshots of lives before, during, and after the Holocaust, there is a surprising amount of humour as the complicated narrative is woven. Lively and unsentimental, this is a book which deserves to be read with a central voice which should be heard.

Survival from a traditionally passive, feminine view point, but equally tense as Klare’s world collapses around her.

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‘Man’s Search For Meaning’ (Viktor E Frankl, 1946)

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He was a psychiatrist in pre-war Vienna before he became fodder for concentration camps.  

There, he noted that it was the men who gave away their last scrap of food that survived the longest, and concluded that it was the man who convinced himself that he had more than he needed who was richest in spirit. Therefore, armed with this knowledge, he was able to survive the despair which killed so many.

This led him to believe that what mankind needs, above all else, is a sense of purpose. Without that, we starve.

With harrowing depictions of life in the concentration camps, this book will take you to the depths of despair then bring you to the same sense of light and love which Frankl showed in writing it only a year after his release.

Unlike many scenarios in these recommendations, what Frankl teaches through his memoir can be applied to every human experience.

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Against All Odds

These books cry out to be read at least twice: once to appreciate the stories of the lives they tell and the second time to learn how to overcome our demons.

We may not have to scale walls but each small struggle needs courage and determination.

Are you inspired by the courage of survivors? Please share your experiences with us.

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