Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

Completion Date: July 24, 2011
Reason for Reading: Received a review copy from Harper Collins Canada.
On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over “Shangri-La,” a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals.

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.
I finished this a while ago, but things got a bit behind for the buddy review of this book. I reviewed it with Carrie from Books and Movies. She has the first part of the review, so you will have to read her blog in order to understand this part.

Me: One thing I am really curious about your impressions on is Margaret Hastings. She was the only girl survivor and the only woman in their entire group once the paratroopers joined them. This brought a lot of attention on her through others and through the course of this book. What did you think of her?

Carrie: Honestly, at first I didn’t like her character. The way she was portrayed as being casually promiscuous and sort of flippant about the men who wanted to date her bugged me - especially as it didn’t seem to be appropriate for the time or place. I’m pretty old-fashioned about those things, though, so it was probably just me.

She did grow on me - and I was definitely impressed with the way she handled the ordeal of being trapped there. I know if it had been me, I would have curled up in a little ball and cried until someone rescued me! I am definitely not cut out for surviving a disaster like that.

I especially liked the way she handled her newfound fame after the rescue, the way she continued to live life on her own terms and not let this one experience define her.

Me: I know. I wasn’t crazy about how the author explained the women in this book period. He said things that really didn’t matter and pointed out strange things that sort of showed them in a bad light. It bothered me a few times.

Margaret grew on me, too. She was a bit of a spit-fire and she faced amazing challenges and came out okay. She stayed true to who she was even though the attention was on her constantly. Even while still on the island everyone cared about everything she did and said. It was like the others didn’t matter as much.

Which brings me to the medics who parachuted down to help the survivors. It was very difficult to get them the attention that they deserved because of all the attention being shown to Margaret and, frankly, their ethnicity. What did you think about that?

Carrie: Are you referring to the the medics’ ethnicity? To be honest, I finished the book so long ago, I don’t remember that! I did remember thinking that the medics and the paratroopers who went in, not knowing if a rescue was even going to be possible, were incredibly brave, and deserved more attention - both from the media at the time, and in the book itself. What an unbelievably courageous thing to do!

Me: Yes, they did deserve more attention. They were very brave to do what they did and the attention was on an entirely different aspect of the rescue. It’s too bad that it played out that way. I don’t think they ever really got the attention they deserved until maybe this book came out. The attention was always on something entirely different. I assumed some people got more attention than others because of their race.

What did you think of the impact on the ‘native’ culture as a result of the white influence?

Carrie: I did think it was sad how much the native culture had changed since their contact with the plane wreck survivors, but I believe that would have happened anyway. Maybe not as quickly, but the fact that flights had already been made over the area meant that explorers from the outside world would be chomping at the bit to make contact with one of the few “untouched” peoples left in the world.

Me: I always wonder just how much we are helping by trying to push our lifestyle and culture onto others. I enjoyed reading this book and look forward to the next time we read a book together, Carrie. It is always a pleasure!

(My thanks to Harper Collins for sending me a copy of this book!)


  1. I have to say that this sounds amazing, so I'll be keeping an eye out for it at the library.

  2. This one has been on my radar screen for a while. Great buddy review.

  3. So, any ideas for our next one? ;)

  4. **Cath: It was really good. I hope you get a chance to read it!

    **Staci: Yeah, it got a lot of attention when it first came out. I enjoyed reading it!

    **Carrie: hm... I will have to think about it!

  5. I like the sound of this one from the overview.

  6. I hope to read this one at some point. It sounds really good, and as this last part of the your discussion shows, it really gets you thinking. I'll link to your post on War Through the Generations.

  7. I was sure I commented on this last week - sorry - it must have been one of those times I didn't check it it had gone through properly. I've been wanting to read this book for a while, but your review has made me push it up the TBR pile. I love books that deal with changes in culture and survival, so this sounds perfect for me - thanks!

  8. Oh, I've been meaning to pick this up for a while now. Very fun review, and determined to get it soon. Thanks! It was fun to see you both enjoyed it also. Fun buddy review! I like reading your questions and answers.


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