Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Lost In Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff
On May 13, 1945, twenty-four officers and enlisted men and women stationed on what was then Dutch New Guinea boarded a transport plane named the Gremlin Special for a sightseeing trip over “Shangri-La.” A beautiful and mysterious valley surrounded by steep, jagged mountain peaks deep within the island’s uncharted jungle, this hidden retreat was named after the fabled paradise in the bestselling novel Lost Horizon. But unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton’s book, this Shangri-La was the home of Stone Age warriors—spear-carrying tribesmen rumored to be headhunters and cannibals.
But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. Miraculously, three passengers survived—WAC Corporal Margaret Hastings, Lieutenant John McCollom, and Sergeant Kenneth Decker. Margaret, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friend’s shoes. McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the Gremlin Special, masked his grief with stoicism. Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a bloody, gaping head wound.
Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to disease, parasites, and poisonous snakes in the wet jungle climate, the trio faced certain death unless they left the wreckage. Caught between man-eating headhunters and the enemy Japanese, with nothing to sustain them but a handful of candy and their own fortitude, they endured a harrowing trek down the mountainside—an exhausting 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.
I left a comment the other day, I forget where though I'm sure I'll remember later, about my discovery of great non fiction books being part of the reason I love book blogging so much. Whether they are books that I have the pleasure of reading or those reviewed by the bloggers I love, I'm finding books about subjects that I either never heard of before or those I'm not all that familiar with. This book, Lost in Shangri-La, recounts a story I never knew about, but I'm damn glad I do now.
This was a fast paced narrative recounting what happened after a C-47 carrying 24 military personal, 9 of them WACS, crashed into the mountains of Dutch New Guinea. For some reason I always think that World War II ended after the Allies defeated Hitler. I almost forget that the military campaign taking place in the Pacific ended later than that. I forget that we still had men, and sometimes women, fighting and dying as they fought the Japanese. I forget that the Atomic bombs we dropped on Japan happened later than the suicide of Hitler. So it's with that forgetfulness of knowledge that I entered into this book.
Those 24 military personnel that crashed landed into a mountain as they were taking a short respite from duty, were brave men and women who were willing to give of themselves to defend this country. They were flying to see, most of them for the first time, a remote mountain valley that had recently been discovered. In that valley, locked away from the rest of the world, lived thousand of native villagers locked in countless wars between villages. They lived with very little clothing, raised their children, grew sweet potatos, raised pigs, and warred on their neighbors for reasons they forgot long ago. They believed in sky spirits that one day would come back and change their world forever. Little did they know that when they encountered the three survivors of that plane crash, that the "sky spirits" were going to be the cause of such monumental change that things would never be the same again.
What I love about this book is how the author recounts not only what happened, but who it happened too. Throughout the book he introduces not only the three survivors but the other 21 people who did not walk away from the crash. It's not just the names that are listed though. Where they are from, who they loved, their goals in life, the details needed to make them real, where what was given. He made me feel as if I was walking along with the 3 of them as they struggled and fought to walk away from the plane and those they knew and loved. He brought to life how they lived amongst the natives as they waited for rescue.
He also helped me to learn about the individual native members of the Dani people as they try to figure out the actions of these "sky spirits" that have been thrust upon them. He was able to recount the way certain natives and the survivors got to know each other and how they often times misunderstood what they other group were doing. Like with the survivors we find out what has happened to them in the years after the rescue and weep at how their valley has "progressed" into the modern world.
This was also the story of the brave men who risked life and limb in order to rescue the three and bring them back to safety. This was no small feat since their was almost no logistical way that didn't have dire consequences if things didn't go right. They had to parachute in then hike to the area the survivors where in. The author brings their personal stories to life in a way that made me want to read more about the Filipino-American soldiers who fought, for whatever reason, against the Japanese.
I loved getting to know all the people involved and I certainly plan on reading/discovering more about them. I really hope that the movie(s) planned shortly after the event happened becomes a real thing someday. Everyone involved deserves the recognition and gratitude that tends to come from a great story being told on the silver screen.
I would like to thank Trish of TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to read/review this book. I would highly encourage everyone to visit the tour page to read more opinions on the book.