Laura Hillenbrand has written just two non-fiction books in the past decade. You might think that it would be hard for an author with those statistics to gain any sort of critical acclaim today, but Hillenbrand has managed to do so. That’s what happens when you’re the author of Seabiscuit: An American Legend, the non-fiction account of the great racehorse Seabiscuit, and Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, the biography of Louis Zamperini, a WWII POW and American Olympic distance runner.
Seabiscuit, published in 2001, tells the story of Seabiscuit, a thoroughbred race horse who beat the odds to become a champion. With the publication of this book, Hillenbrand’s name spread, known as an author with an impeccable ability to recreate events she herself had never experienced. With Hillenbrand’s novel as a base, Seabiscuit became the subject of the 2003 eponymous 2003 Academy Award-nominated major motion picture. Hillenbrand’s novel won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year.
Her next book was Unbroken, the biography of the World War II hero Louis Zamperini, published in 2010. If you haven’t heard of Zamperini, then you’re missing out on quite the story. In his youth, Zamperini (now 95 and an international speaker) was a top runner, with a four-minute mile in his sights and an eighth place finish in the 5k at the 1936 Berlin Olympics under his belt. When the war came around, he enlisted in the Army Air Forces. He survived a crash that stranded three of the eleven aboard the plane on a raft for 47 days at sea. And let’s just say that there’s more to the story, but I’ll let Hillenbrand do the rest of the narration for Zamperini’s truly astounding tale. This is truly a story you don’t want to miss.
Hillenbrand has been living with a debilitating condition known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which caused her to cut her college studies short. She is rarely able to leave her home due to her CFS. When asked by the Washington Post (see the article here) to comment on the irony of writing about such physical feats given her own physical state, Hillenbrand revealed what sets her apart from other authors. Her own physical incapacity gives her the drive to escape intellectually; describing another person’s physical accomplishments is her way of “living vicariously.” So that’s how she became a storyteller of nonfiction like no other before her.