Stories of Resilience and Hope in the Face of Tragedy

Today we mark the eleven year anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center with the annual reading of the names of the victims at the National 9/11 Memorial & Museum, while work continues on the new Freedom Tower nearby. But for most of us, no public monuments or ceremonies are necessary to remember the events of more than a decade ago. Several memoirs and biographies explores times when our country was similarly tested, and celebrate individuals who exemplified resilience and hope in the face of national and personal tragedy. In Unbroken,” Laura Hillenbrand writes about Louis Zamperini, a little-known World War Two bombardier and former Olympic athlete who overcame astonishing challenges in an ordeal at sea after his plane crashed in the Pacific Ocean. Surviving the crash was just the beginning of Zamperini’s trials, as he was taken prisoner by the Japanese Navy and tormented by sadistic guards. Yet throughout the rest of his life, the airman preached forgiveness, even traveling to Japan to meet with his former captors, and lecturing widely about his experiences. His story is remarkable, as are the following books about the endurance of the human spirit worldwide.

"A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah

In the 90s, a teenaged Ishmael Beah spent months as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, where he carried an AK-47 and used drugs, including a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, to numb himself from the atrocities he and the rest of the government-supported children’s army were committing against rebel soldiers. After escaping to the United States and eventually attending Oberlin College, Beah wrote this memoir of his experiences. Chilling in its depiction of how easy it is to recruit and brainwash children to commit torture and even murder, the book nonetheless inspires hope that even the most traumatized victims of war can transcend their tragedies and help heal others.

"When Heaven and Earth Changed Places" by Le Ly Hayslip and Jay Wurts

Le Ly Hayslip was just twelve years old when American soldiers arrived in her tiny Vietnamese village. As the Vietnam War escalated, she was accused by both the Americans and the Viet Cong of spying for the enemy, and barely escaped a death sentence. By the time she was sixteen, Hayslip had been raped, imprisoned, and tortured. She escaped to Saigon, where she met and married an American man who brought her to the United States. In her memoir, she alternates between memories of the Vietnam she knew as a child, both before and during the war, and her impressions of the country from her first trip back in the mid-1980s. After writing the book, Hayslip founded the East Meets West organization, which works in Vietnam and other countries to aid war victims and bridge gaps between eastern and western cultures.

"The Diary of a Young Girl" by Anne Frank

When Anne Frank received a checkered-covered diary for her thirteenth birthday, she had no idea she would soon be using it to record one of the most moving and enduring accounts of life during wartime. Soon after she began writing in the journal, which she named Kitty, Frank and her family were forced to go into hiding in an unused storeroom above her father’s Amsterdam office. For the next two years, Frank wrote about daily life in the “secret annex.” Though Frank and most of her family were killed in concentration camps, her father, Otto, survived and published her diary after the war. Her mix of ordinary teenage concerns with philosophical observations on the nature of war and mankind made the book an instant classic that continues to feel as vital and urgent today as it did sixty-five  years ago.

Harriet Tubman: Imagining a Life” by Beverly Lowry

Born a slave to a poor Maryland farmer, Harriet Tubman’s early life was one of pain and exhaustion, including a severe head injury from a weight thrown at another slave who was trying escape captivity. But by her mid-twenties, she had determined to secure her freedom, and managed to cross to safety with the help of the Underground Railroad. Her own emancipation not enough, Tubman made many return trips to slave territory to escort other slaves to freedom, ferrying them as far north as Canada and earning the nickname “Moses” for her habit of singing “Go Down, Moses” as a signal. In this biography, which includes imagined scenes and visual details, Lowry portrays Tubman as a canny and brave hero not just of the abolitionist movement, but of the fight for justice everywhere.