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Zuckoff tells the tale with an unusual focus on the personalities randomly thrust together and the collision of stunningly different worlds. His writing and delivery let the drama speak for itself: his mellow voice and almost conversational style avoids histrionics at the climactic moments, yet still conveys the characters’ emotional journeys.
Events take off, literally in 1945 in Dutch New Guinea, where Americans still at war with the Japanese were stationed. Twenty-four soldiers and members of the Women’s Army Corps are treated by their boss to a recreational flight over “Shangri-La”, a storied part of the island recently discovered.
Flying over a narrow valley on the mountainous island (which had already foundered 600 planes during the war), treacherous terrain and human error result in the crash, killing all but three on board: Corporal Margaret Hastings, a 30-year-old WAC enlistee from upstate New York, who sustained leg burns; Sergeant Kenneth Decker, whose stoicism wasn’t fully realized until the severity of his wounds were discovered days later, and, finally, Lieutenant John McCollom who, while physically the heartiest, was arguably the most wounded, having left the remains of his twin brother in the wreckage.
Zuckoff sensitively narrates the travails of the immediate aftermath when the trio, living on scant water and hard candies, drag themselves through the jungle to a clearing where they will be more visible to search planes.
But they are first spotted by natives, fierce-looking and, for all the survivors know, cannibals. Drawing heavily on Margaret’s diary, Zuckoff seems to share the sense of wonder, as well as the initial condescension, curiosity, and fear shared by the survivors. And, through his research with the tribesmen and their progeny about the long-ago event, he helps us grasp the culture and reactions of the tribe, who believed the survivors to be gods or spirits of death to be honored. The tribe’s almost religious commitment to making war makes the relationships that grew between the two groups that much more remarkable. Margaret and a regal, gracious tribeswoman find a deep bond, with nary a comprehensible word between them.
After five weeks together, the rescue operation is ready. Zuckoff sets it up with all the challenges of logistics and aeronautic risks, telling a heart-stopping narrative from the arrival of paratroopers through the seemingly doomed attempts to “snatch” the survivors to safety.
For all the swashbuckling, exotic appeal of this historic episode, the most moving sections were the intimacies Zuckoff sought out from the survivors and shares here like secret, treasured knowledge the snippets of letters sent home; details of families’ idiosyncrasies, and especially, the fascinatingly ordinary lives the survivors lived out, after the event Zuckoff reveals in all its extraordinariness. Elly Schull Meeks
But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friend’s shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.
Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside - a journey into the unknown that would lead them straight into a primitive tribe of superstitious natives who had never before seen a white man - or woman.
Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined trio - dehydrated, sick, and in pain - traversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.
By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives’ remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.
Customer ReviewsMost Helpful
By dan on 05-01-11
Best use of a credit in quite a whlle.
Very good story. I enjoyed hearing the viewpoints of the New Guinea natives some 60 years after the event. Don't let the fact that the auithor narrates the book scare you away - he does an excellant job.
32 of 33 people found this review helpful
By Janice on 05-12-11
I made this selection because it was recommended for those who enjoyed "Unbroken", and it was an excellent recommendation. The stories are similar in time period and setting (Pacific theater, WWII) and both deal with a tragic air crash with survivors in need of rescue. But this is not a copy of the earlier story and is compelling in its own way. The narrative follows the events up to and subsequent to the crash, but but also puts into context the backgrounds of the players, allowing us to know them as more than vague historical characters who experienced a unique event. He also puts historical context to the exploration of New Guinea which deepens the understanding of the hardships caused by the nearly impenetrable terrain. I especially appreciated Zuckoff's research into the culture of the native New Guinea people. By explaining their point of view we get a facinating picture of cultural exchanges that are sometimes comical, sometimes touching and sometimes unfortunate. Also appreciated was the attention given to the passengers who did not survive the crash. I found it respectful to acknowledge their presence and who they were as individuals. Interviews with survivors, recuers and natives, or family members of those (decades later of course), and the use of diaries kept by several of the main characters adds authenticity to the story.
As another reviewer has stated, the reading by the author was excellent, and added to the enjoyment of the book. Highly recommended.
40 of 42 people found this review helpful