Monday, May 14, 2012

Review: Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

In this day and age, we tend to think of the majority of the planet as explored and accessible. We can't fathom societies which have not had any kind of interaction with outsiders. And we may be correct in thinking that these places and these peoples are a thing of the past. But perhaps not in such a distant past as we might imagine. In the waning days of World War II, one such place and the native inhabitants there captivated the United States. A military C-47 carrying 24 servicemen and women flying a sightseeing mission over the newly discovered valley nicknamed Shangri-La in Dutch New Guinea crashed into the impenetrable jungle killing 21 of those on board. The three survivors, two of whom were desperately injured, were suddenly plunged into the unknown world of the Dani tribe as they waited for the US military to try and concoct a plant to get them out of the seemingly inaccessible valley 150 miles from Hollandia, their military outpost on the coast.

John McCollum, Ken Decker, and Margaret Hastings survived the terrible crash, the fiery deaths of their friends and colleagues (and in McCollum's case of his identical twin brother), and a desperate scramble down the mountainside to find a clearing in which to signal search planes. As they awaited rescue and the medical attention Decker and Margaret so direly needed to treat their gangrenous wounds, the three survivors are surrounded by the native Dani people, who are believed by the army to be warlike cannibals. Zuckoff details both the three survivors' assumptions about the primitive society into whose midst they have landed and the natives' beliefs which dictated how they treated the survivors.

In their quest to get McCollum, Decker, and Hastings the treatment they need and then out of Shangri-La, the army first sends in a full complement of Filipino paratroopers, including two medics, led by Earl Walter and then comes up with a plan almost too far-fetched to be realistic, full of danger, and rife with the potential for failure to snatch all fourteen army personnel plus, improbably enough, one Hollywood filmaker, from the remote valley floor.

The three crash survivors, a couple of the Dani tribesmen, and several of those who risked their lives to rescue McCollum, Decker, and Hastings are all carefully described and fleshed out both through their own accounts and the accounts of those who knew them. Their personalities and the personal histories that drove their actions are all carefully detailed. Although almost everyone involved in this story is now gone, their bravery and chutzpah shine again on these pages and their tale has been saved from obscurity. Woven in with the immediate story of the crash is the timeline of the war in the Pacific and the effect it had on a military outpost like Hollandia, Dutch New Guinea. Also included is a bit of an epilogue about the way that the people falling from the sky forever transformed the remote and previously untouched society of the Shangri-La Valley (properly called Baliem Valley).

Zuckoff has written a gripping adventure story mixed with anthropology, a true survival tale that captures the readers' imagination just as completely as the situation did with contemporary audiences reading along in the papers as the incredible tale unfolded. Loaded with first-hand accounts and thoroughly researched information, this non-fiction narrative unfolds with pitch perfect pacing and tension. The ending is never in doubt and while this is not a WWII story in the traditional sense (the action is far from the war and fighting itself), it is still a fascinating story, one soon eclipsed by the horror and drama of the atomic bomb. Occasionally some of the bacground information threatens to overwhelm the immediate story but overall, this is a well-done and engrossing tale. I plan to pass it to both my husband and my teenaged son to read in turn as I'm quite sure that both of them will thoroughly enjoy it as well.

For more information about Mitchell Zuckoff and the book visit his website or his Facebook page. Follow the rest of the blog tour or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book.

Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.


  1. I've got this for the book tour as well, my stop is not until June 13th but I can't wait to read it!

  2. I've heard nothing but good things about this book, and now I'm kicking myself for not taking part in the tour! Great review!

  3. It was such an interesting story, wasn't it? So glad I read it. Great review!

  4. I LOVED this book - glad to see you did as well!

    Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.


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