I’ve been using the reviews of fellow Cannonballers to help pick new books to read, and I have to thank Katie for her positive review of Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La. This is a book I would never have picked up on my own, but I really enjoyed it.
The book tells the story of a plane crash and its aftermath during the final months of World War II. Stationed in New Guinea, an American pilot spotted an “undiscovered” tribe of natives living in a secluded valley in the middle of the island. The valley was virtually inaccessible from the ground, and its location made it a bit tricky for pilots, but they began flying sight-seeing missions over the valley to show the natives to their fellow pilots and to soldiers and WACs stationed at the coastal U.S. base. One of these excursions ended tragically when a plane carrying over 20 servicemen and women crashed into a mountain on the way to the valley, but that was just the beginning of an extraordinary story of survival and rescue. After the crash, the survivors, some of whom were injured, had to make their way out of the jungle into a clearing in order to be seen from above so that they can be rescued. The clearing, though, was actually a sweet potato field for the natives, about whom the soldiers know very little. There had been rumors that the tribesmen were cannibals or headhunters, so the soldiers were quite frightened of making contact. Adding to their problems was the difficulty of getting the survivors out of this isolated spot. I thought it would be simple matter of simply helicoptering them out of there, but apparently the high altitude prohibited helicopters, at least the helicopters of that time period. The book takes us through the fascinating drama of these survivors and the men who worked to find a way to rescue them. Zuckoff personalizes the story by giving us the backstories of the survivors and rescuers, particularly Margaret Hastings, a WAC from New York. At the time, the story got a lot of play in the press, but it’s essentially been forgotten by history. It’s a really fascinating story, though, and it should be told.
My only criticism of the book, and it’s very minor, is that I would like to have known more about what happened to the natives after the crash. Zuckoff actually traveled to New Guinea himself and spoke with the tribesmen, and he gives us a quick snapshot of how life has changed in the valley, but he didn’t really explain how the changes came about. It’s a minor quibble, though, of an excellent book. Zuckoff is a journalist, but the writing here is not as impersonal and fact-oriented as you might expect from a journalist. It’s beautifully written and tells a truly interesting story.