Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff is a story of the survivors of an American plane crash. Set towards the end of the 2nd World War, in Netherlands New Guinea, it recounts the tale of a fun sortie that went pear shaped for all the travelers. Originally published in 2011, I had the opportunity to read it only recently and I found it quite insipid and unlike many other survivor stories that are so awe-inspiring.
When survival against all odds comes to mind, I think of the 127 hours – a movie by Danny Boyle. This is definitely not even remotely in that league. The 3 survivors of the plane crash were all in the military, albeit one was part of the Women Army Corps and not a trained soldier by any stretch of the imagination. Nevertheless, following the plane crash, the three of them manage to haul themselves to a place from where the Search and Rescue planes are able to locate them. Following their sighting, they are regularly provided with food and other provisions. Soon after, within a period of a few days, a larger contingent of armed soldiers and a couple of Doctors air-drop into the valley of Shangri-La, where, together, they spend many days. They are adequately provisioned and fed during their entire sojourn in the valley and the only thrill or suspense that remains in the book is how they were transported out of there and into safety.
While the story line itself is not that exciting, the story-telling is also at par with any other author that narrates a historical series of events. As is the norm, every character is introduced with a brief history of their lives. There is the Corporal who leads the rescue mission, the WAC who is feisty and of Irish descent and the Captain, who is fearless and a leader of the group. Each story is embellished with enough information to help envision the character and relate with them at a superficial level. There is not a complete character sketch or a detailed insight into the lives of the key protagonists. The references to the natives in the story line are interspersed with their reminisces from many years later, which does give a good perspective and helps move the story along.
The author does try his best to bring in a little suspense into the story. The theories about the mindset of the possibly dangerous natives of the valley are an attempt to create intrigue, but it does fall flat more often that not, given that at no point during the entire rescue operation, was any single person at risk of life from the natives of the land.
On the positive side, the story is extremely well researched. It possibly did make a huge splash in 1945, when the plane crashed and America and the Allied Forces were on the brink of winning the war with the imminent surrender of the Japanese. The author claims to have had access to a daily journal maintained by one of the survivors during the rescue operation. All of these do make it a decent story.
Having read many World War II books and seen so many movies made on that time period, this one did not cut it for me. The help that the survivors received just a few days into their ordeal made their story pale in comparison with so many others. I would give this book 3 stars out of 5. Read it, but don’t blame me if you have to will yourself through to the end of this one!