Friday, April 15, 2011

Book review: "Lost in Shangri-La" by Mitchell Zuckoff

“Lost in Shangri-La” is a wonderfully written book about the 1945 crash of an American military plane and the effort to rescue the survivors from a remote valley in New Guinea. It’s a great story, thoroughly researched and well told by author Mitchell Zuckoff.

In some ways, the story plays out like a movie, and the book benefits from a wonderful “cast.”  The three survivors are beautiful WAC corporal Margaret Hastings, Sergeant Kenneth Decker, who is suffering from a severe head injury, and handsome lieutenant John McCollom, whose twin brother died in the crash but who overcomes his grief to take charge. They are met in the valley by seemingly menacingly natives who have never had contact with the outside world.  Soon, a bold young American named Earl Walter leads a team of paratroopers coming to the survivors’ rescue.

Importantly, Zuckoff tells the story not just from the Americans’ point of view, but also from the natives’, avoiding a simplistic civilized-man-versus-the-savages storyline. Despite the early fears, the natives do not prove hostile, but since the two sides are unable to communicate verbally they have some comic misunderstandings. In one case, after Walter and his paratrooper squad arrive in the valley, they find the natives hugging and squeezing them. Walter becomes convinced that the residents believe that he and his men are women, so he orders his paratroopers to strip naked.  In fact, the natives were simply puzzled by their Americans’ “second skin” – their clothes – and are more astonished by their sudden nudity.

Hastings, as the only woman among the Americans, is the focal point of the book, as she was for the rescuers and for U.S. newspapers covering the rescue at the time. Excerpts from her diary show her maturing during the ordeal, her initial fear of the natives eventually growing into respect as she got to know them.

If the book has a weak point it’s about halfway through when reality intrudes and, well, not that much happens. Still, the ending offers some fresh drama as Army officials turn to an unorthodox strategy to bring the Americans out of the isolated valley.

I liked that the publisher inserted pictures at the appropriate place in the book, rather than bunching them all in the middle. I also liked that Zuckoff provides follow-up on the people in the book to tell us what happened to them in the rest of their lives.

Note that there is a "Cast of Characters" chapter at the end for reference in case you get confused about who is who.


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