2011. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 384 pages.
From: the public library
Recommended by: Sophisticated Dorkiness
In a nutshell:
Author Mitchell Zuckoff recounts the story of three survivors of a 1945 plane crash in a remote area of New Guinea. The passengers of the doomed flight had been planning to see a legendary valley, nicknamed “Shangri-La” by some, which was inhabited by native people cut off from the wider world. It was a sightseeing trip intended to give members of the Hollandia base some rest and relaxation. Many of the passengers were members of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
After the crash, Margaret Hastings, John McCollum and Kenneth Decker are the only survivors. Zuckoff recounts their experiences, as well as the risky rescue actions taken by a small group of mostly Filipino-American paratroopers, and a couple of glider pilots.
In addition, Zuckoff chronicles the Americans’ encounters with the native people of New Guinea, and how each group of people’s worldviews shape their interactions.
World War II is a seemingly inexhaustible source of incredible stories. Every few years I will read a book that reveals another new facet to that era, as with Nechama Tec’s Defiance, which was about the Bielski Partisans in Belarus.
What makes Lost in Shangri-La stand-out are a number of elements. First, it’s set in New Guinea, an island with a reputation for remote regions and native people “untouched by time”. Then, there are all the elements I mentioned in the synopsis: WAC’s, cross-cultural interaction, gliders, paratroopers, and so on.
Zuckoff is able to tell a lot of the story based on primary sources. Margaret Hastings, one of the survivors, kept a diary of the time. Others involved gave interviews before they died or wrote letters. Zuckoff was able to interview one of the Americans that was there on the ground during the rescue. He was also able to interview, via translator, several of the native people of New Guinea who were children at the time of the plane crash.
I think the story greatly benefits from being written in today’s era. Whereas the media of the time barely acknowledged the heroic actions of the Filipino-American paratroopers, Zuckoff highlights their contribution to World War II, and to this rescue mission in particular. Where the media and the military of that time were often condescending and ignorant regarding the native people, Zuckoff is able to illuminate the native people’s culture and worldview.
Indeed, my favorite aspect of the novel is how I got to see both sides of the cultural interaction, and the weird ideas both groups of people had about the other. It’s very refreshing to know both sides of an encounter, and amazing to get both sides in a story over 60 years old.
I have little criticism for the writing which I thought was organized and well-balanced between the big-picture and meaningful, vivid details. I did think the beginning was a bit artificially theatrical as Zuckoff tried to build the reader’s suspense. Even after the crash event, Zuckoff sometimes had the tendency to spell out the significance the moment, when it didn’t seem necessary for me. But for some readers, this very same tendency might be the kind of flair they need or want, so it really comes down to one’s taste.
Overall, however, I found Lost in Shangri-La was a really engaging nonfiction read and worthy of its popularity. It also made me want to read more books set in New Guinea and other books about the Pacific front of World War II, which I often feel gets overlooked by the more well-trod ground of the European theater.
Excerpts from others’ reviews:
Bookfoolery and Babble – “While I would not say Lost in Shangri-La is the most exciting survival book I’ve ever read, nor a favorite, I enjoyed the reading and would say it’s above average as far as the research and detail.”
Man of La Book – “The real strength of the book is the characterization of the real-life figures . . . Each one is written about in a very personal way which makes you want to jump in the pages and shake their hands.
Sophisticated Dorkiness – “Lost in Shangri-La perfectly exemplifies everything that I love about narrative nonfiction . . . a story full of the dramatic ups and downs of the best adventure fiction.”