At the close of World War II, in the uncharted Baliem valley of New Guinea, three plane crash survivors found themselves in a jungle with no shelter, no protection from predators or potentially hostile natives, no food, and no way of knowing if the rich plant resources around them were safe to eat or not. In his newest book, Lost in Shangri-La, author Mitchell Zuckoff follows the events of Mother’s Day 1945 from the hours before takeoff, to the crash, to the days and weeks of survival that followed, with well-researched attention to detail and a journalistic flair for narrative hooks.
“We were in what was thought to be headhunter territory,” Lieutenant John McCollum explains in chapter nine, “we had no medical supplies, no shelter. We were in the middle of nowhere. I knew my twin brother was dead in the wreckage. I had to take care of the others. I didn’t want to think about being out there all by myself, so I did what I could as much for myself as for them.”
McCollum’s words are the underlying essence of this World War II-era true-life story. While the book is undoubtedly a riveting, almost cinematic tale of unexplored jungles, suspenseful encounters, and daring rescue, it is also a story of a trio’s very real and deadly trek home, and a memorial to those who did not survive to accompany them.
The story of Hastings, McCollum, and Decker was once huge news in post-war America. Almost daily articles appeared to keep the public in the States informed on the status of the stranded trio, but it was also a tale quickly discarded and forgotten in favor of larger news stories from the Pacific and European fronts. Zuckoff, a professor of journalism and author of Ponzi’s Scheme and Choosing Naia, deftly transforms memories, photos, and interviews on the events of 1945 into a colorful and engaging narrative, doing considerable justice to the story and bringing it once more to the forefront of public memory.
The strength of Zuckoff’s book lies in his focus on the personal stories of each individual. Rather than spend too much time on the logistics of the rescue operation or the reactions at the military base, he instead gives us a view from the ground level. By the end of the story, we know of Margaret’s unfulfilled pleas for fresh panties, the group’s longing for hot coffee or “battery acid” from the mess hall, and the native’s annoyance at having unexpected survivors camped out in the middle of their sweet potato fields.
Zuckoff does a particularly notable job in including the perspective of the locals in the Baliem valley, nicknamed Shangri-La by the residents of the US Army base 150 miles north. While the natives of the book, the Dani tribe of New Guinea, could potentially have been left as mere colorful footnotes in the recounting of the crash and rescue (indeed, the text in the book jacket describes them stereotypically as “Stone Age warriors” led by a “noble native chief”), Zuckoff is careful in his retelling to not only include the attitudes and recollections of the survivors and rescuers, but also those of the Dani who encountered Margaret Hastings and the others.
All too often in stories of white encounters with natives, the native perspective is left out. In Lost in Shangri-La, however, this is refreshingly not the case. Much of an entire chapter of the book is dedicated to explaining the Dani way of life and the cultural significance of things such as war from the perspective of the natives. Rather than rely entirely on outsider memories of the natives, Zuckoff traveled to the Baliem valley himself to interview Dani witnesses to the crash. Interviews with Dani tribesmen and women were translated through Buzz Maxey, a long-time resident and missionary on New Guinea. Maxey also provided Zuckoff with important cultural interpretations of native accounts, allowing Zuckoff to craft a more complete picture of the events and lend greater insight into the story.
The book’s only weakness comes from the strength of Zuckoff’s research. From time to time, he becomes somewhat too caught up in the histories of the people involved in the crash and rescue. Do we really need to know the life history of Richard Archbold, a wealthy biologist/explorer who first found the valley years before, or the boyhood shenanigans of lead rescuer C. Earl Walter? Their personal histories are entertaining and interesting, but their placement disruptively pulls the reader away from the Baliem valley.
Overall, however, Lost in Shangri-La is a treasure. Filled with people you wish you had met (how can you not fall in love with the vivacious and sassy Margaret Hastings?), doings things you tend to only see in Indiana Jones movies, set on a vastly unexplored island in the middle of the Pacific theatre, Lost is the perfect book for history buffs and lovers of adventure stories alike.
Book review by: Melinda Bardon