Title: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
Genre: Non-fiction, history
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Source: Audiobook from the public library
Audiobook reader: Mitchell Zuckoff
First line: On a rainy day in May 1945, a Western Union messenger made his rounds through the quiet village of Oswego, in upstate New York.
Publisher blurb: On 5/13/45, two dozen US servicemen & WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over Shangri-La, a beautiful unmapped valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, rumored to be cannibals. The pleasure tour became a battle for survival when the plane crashed. Three passengers pulled thru. Margaret Hastings, barefoot & 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 grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned & suffered a gaping head wound. Emotionally devastated, badly injured & vulnerable to the dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between imagined headhunters & the Japanese, they 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’d never seen a white. Drawn from interviews, declassified Army documents, personal photos & mementos, a survivor’s diary, a rescuer’s journal & original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the 1st time. Zuckoff reveals how the determined trio–dehydrated, sick & in pain–traversed the jungle to find help; how paratroopers risked their lives to save them; & how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out. By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages & rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives’ remembrances of the long-ago day when strangers fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening & comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride.
Kelly from The Written World and I read Lost in Shangri-la a while ago, and have had a meandering discussion going on ever since. We finally decided we were done talking about it, and now give you our discussion. This is the first half; click over to Kelly’s blog for the second.
Me: This book was different than what I expected, and the biggest surprise for me was how much humor there was in it! Obviously, this was a tragic accident, with 21 people not surviving, but the interactions with the natives were often very funny. Especially the scene when the paratroopers jump in and they’re afraid the natives think they’re women, so decide to prove otherwise.
I really liked the way the author used the journals of the people actually involved to show the way their experiences in Shangri-la changed them. How Margaret’s views of the natives evolved from very condescending (“simple people”) to seeing them as human beings and forming relationships with them. Also the way the paratrooper leading the rescue mission started out wanting to make a name for himself, but then ended up being a truly great leader who put the safety of his team first.
Kelly: I had heard that this was a very conversational-type non-fiction and not really all that dry. I love books that take place during the World Wars, so I was planning to read this anyway, but when I started seeing the reviews talking about the writing style and just how readable the book was, I was glad to read it sooner rather than later. It talked about an aspect of the war I had never heard anything about. I have always been interested in pilots and flying, so that aspect of the book interested me. These people had crashed in a place where it was virtually impossible to get them out, so reading about all the different plans was really interesting.
I agree with you on the humour. The scene where the paratroopers prove that they are men was hilarious. The reader is told what the natives were really thinking, but there was obvious some separation between the two cultures. The people on this flight wanted to see the natives and the world that they inhabited. They were not expecting to have to live amongst them for many days. It change the natives world, which is a bit sad, but is what always seems to happen. The ‘white’ culture always thinks that how they live is better and feel the need to ‘change’ things for the ‘better’ for the other culture.
What is the one thing that you have taken away from this book that will stick with you for a long time?
Me: As I listened to this on audiobook, I kept being amazed at the resilience of people. The fact that so few survived and yet were able to set aside their grief and fear and continue on without losing hope – that’s what astounded me.
I am also grateful about how far we have come as an American culture when it comes to the way we perceive cultures other than our own. I know that racism is still very real and pervasive in many areas of our society, but it’s not the norm anymore to look at another culture of people whose ways are different from ours and assume that they are “simple” or “savages.”
I really enjoy reading narrative non-fiction. Are there any non-fiction titles you would recommend to me – and others? I recently enjoyed Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s a different type of story – less humor – but amazing and inspiring.
Kelly: I know. They overcame a lot and still managed to keep themselves going. And, the paratroopers jumped into a zone where they had no idea if they were going to make it out again because at that time there was no escape plan in effect. That took a lot of courage. They could easily feel trapped!
I am waiting my turn for Unbroken to come in at the library. I have heard really good things about it. I am sure there is some narrative non-fiction I could recommend, but I haven’t read as much non-fiction this year as I normally do, so nothing is jumping to mind.
Don’t forget, you can read the second half of our discussion at Kelly’s blog.