CBR-V Review #61: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff

I love disaster stories. For a while, when I was about ten, I was obsessed with all things Titanic–I read virtually every book out there (fictional and non-) about the wreck. Nowadays, I’m a sucker for any book about surviving accidents–in 2013, I read two books about shipwrecks (one of which, The Lifeboat, I liked, the other of which, Unbroken, I hated). I was really excited to read Lost in Shangri-La, because it sounded really promising on the back cover–a gorgeous setting, a catastrophic accident, cannibals, and a daring rescue. Unfortunately, it really didn’t live up to my expectations, and felt a whole lot closer to Unbroken in terms of quality.

Lost in Shangri-La is the true story of a plane crash in New Guinea during World War II, killing almost twenty Americans and leaving three others–Margaret (a feisty and beautiful WAC), John (a young lieutenant whose twin brother was also on the plane), and Kenneth (a severely injured sergeant)–to find their way out of the unexplored jungle. While the three survivors are struggling to stay alive and interacting with the island’s natives, their colleagues at a nearby army base try to plan a seemingly impossible rescue mission.

I’ll start with the good: it’s stories like this that are meant to be written about. The crash and the events that followed it are truly incredible, and I completely understand the desire to write about and essentially memorialize an incident that most people have never heard about before. In the same vein, Zuckoff has a lot to work with in terms of an amazing setting–a lush, untouched paradise filled with people who are living in a world completely removed from modern civilization–and a truly great cast of characters. The raw material is nothing short of amazing, and Zuckoff is a good writer, with enough skill to present it in an interesting and (at times) compelling way.

However, despite all this potential, the book falls short in a few significant ways. The first is that Zuckoff was clearly limited by his decision to write a nonfiction account of the events. While there is a great amount of detail to be found regarding certain pieces of the story, and certain characters, his lack of information in other areas was glaring. For example, while we get a  good sense of Margaret and, to a slightly lesser extent, John, as people (based on written first-person accounts and interviews with family members), Kenneth is a complete non-entity throughout.

Zuckoff also seems to have some trouble with pacing and balance–he includes a lot of really extraneous information that seems to serve no purpose other than to take up space, but then rushes certain events to the point that they feel anti-climactic. It almost felt like he was really excited about writing about the crash itself, but everything past the immediate aftermath of the crash felt boring and misleading. The blurb on the back completely sensationalized the material– in reality, the survivors spent a lot of time just hanging out and getting to know the (perfectly nice, friendly, and definitely non-cannibalistic) natives. That’s fine, and obviously if it’s true, that’s the way Zuckoff needs to write about it, but it doesn’t make for a particularly exciting read.

I also really felt like Zuckoff could have dedicated more attention to the natives, who I was fascinated by. He framed their experience through the lens of the Americans who encountered them, and the result was often (unintentionally although it may have been) kind of patronizing and ethnocentric. I would have loved to have known more about them and their customs and beliefs, rather than have them be relegated to the sidelines of the story. I also felt like the description of the natives on the back cover of the book (as “cannibalistic”) was sort of offensive, and I would have also really liked to have gotten a better sense of the relations between the tribe that interacted with the Americans and those other violent groups that populated the area but didn’t play a role in the story.

Overall, this book definitely doesn’t live up to its potential, and I was very disappointed by it. It might just be my personal preferences coming into play, though–I’m starting to realize that I just don’t respond well to triumphant narratives of overcoming the odds, because I find them to generally be overly simplistic and not interesting enough. As evidenced by the number of extremely positive reviews of this book across the board, it’s probably just me, so take my review with a grain of salt.