Book Review: Devil at My Heels

Louis Zamperini with David Rensin
Harper Collins, 2003 (2011)

Devil at My Heels is the updated autobiography of Louis Zamperini, an Olympic athlete, B-24 bombardier, POW, and Christian. It seems most people come upon the book by first finding Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, the biography of the same man published around the same time.

Unsurprisingly, much of the text is the same.  It is, after all, the same man’s true story.  The stories are generally identical, though told in slightly different ways.  As noted in the review of Unbroken, Zamperini’s story there is a well told narrative but lacks introspection, and what is arguably the most significant step in Zamperini’s life — his conversion to Christ and his life thereafter — earns a scant 9-pages (of 400) in Hillenbrand’s tome.

In Devil at My Heels, the same stories are told in the first person, with side comments and introspection from the author that are at times distracting while simultaneously adding personal depth to the tale.  If Unbroken was written as a story of action and survival to eventually grace the silver screen, Devil at My Heels was written to see the heart of the man.

While Unbroken barely noted Zamperini’s conversion and his decision to forgive his former captors, Zamperini’s autobiography devotes the final 50 pages (of 289) to both that portion of his life and a heart-felt summary of his faith, life, and perspective. It is in these pages that Zamperini communicates a message no biographer ever could.

Interestingly, both books follow a theme revealed only in the autobiography.  Zamperini says he was put off by “pressure tactics” from Christians who seemed to force the gospel “down people’s throats,” and “gave Christianity a bad name” in the process.  His book, like Unbroken, carefully tells his story and ends with a straightforward account of his conversion and its impact on his life.  While the final pages of Devil at My Heels clearly makes a more in depth and explicit presentation of his faith compared to Hillenbrand’s book, overbearing it is not.

At the same time, though, he noted his refusal to water down his faith in the proposed transition of his story to a Hollywood movie (advice he was given by Dean Hess, another famous military Christian and author of Battle Hymn), which is one reason why the film was never made.  As noted in an interview with the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, he “hoped” the gospel would be included in Hillenbrand’s book, over which he had no control.  Both the message and the delivery were important to Zamperini.

Zamperini was neither a Christian Olympic athlete nor a Christian B-24 bombardier.  The most well-known parts of his life — his Olympic race, his open ocean survival, his trials in Japanese POW camps — are at once sobering and fascinating glimpses into an era most characterized by the ugliness of war.  His conversion to Christianity and his ability to overcome that ugliness through his new-found faith are inspiring for both men and women in today’s military, as well as those simply walking the faith of Christ.

Devil at My Heels is highly RecommendedUnbroken was reviewed here.  Both are worth reading.  If you only have time for one, Devil at My Heels is the easy choice.

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