If some stories are too good to be true, is it possible that some stories are too true to be good? In his latest nonfiction narrative, author Mitchell Zuckoff seems determined to find out.
Lost in Shangri-La tells the real-life story of a World War II plane crash into a Dutch New Guinea valley so isolated that the inhabitants have not yet discovered the wheel. This remarkable event made headlines even at the time. Reporters from the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune rode along in the rescue plane, seeking intimate details about the one surviving woman – a beautiful, unmarried WAC. Not long after, a roguish documentary maker parachuted in to capture key scenes on film. Everyone involved, it seemed, kept a diary. As a result, “Lost in Shangri-La” is a jungle of personal and historical details.
Some readers may find these details welcome. They will learn about the reception of WACs in World War II; the history of military gliders; and the bellicose customs of an aboriginal people who created their own endless war on an Edenic island, even as they knew nothing about the world war raging around the rest of the globe. Readers will also learn, in exhaustive detail, the biographies of the victims, survivors, rescuers, and native hosts – a cast that approaches 50 characters.
However, readers seeking a more sharply focused, novelistic approach will likely be disappointed. Zuckoff’s inclinations seem to be expository rather than dramatic, and he offers more facts than scenes. He also throws in the occasional commentary on the Americans’ pejoratives attitude toward the natives, asides that keep the author and the reader in the role of historical voyeurs rather than ersatz travelers sharing in the adventure.
To be sure, Zuckoff must work with the material he has. One trouble with a plane crash in a hard-to-reach place is that during the weeks survivors and their would-be saviors wait for a way to get out, there is little to do. Even the protagonists’ diary entries complain of boredom. They play cards, nap, chat, and eat K-rations dropped from the sky. A good deal of reading “Lost in Shangri-La” is like passing the time with someone in a hospital bed. The scenario is fraught, but very little actually happens.
And in that way, Zuckoff hits on something perhaps more meaningful than the extraordinary premise of the story. A lot of war is simply tedious. It’s rainy and uncomfortable. The food is lousy. Others’ personalities and egos most be tolerated, and a lot of time is spent wishing one were somewhere else. Yet, as one of the rescuers said of his month trapped in the valley they called Shangri-La, “It was the highlight of my life.”
Indeed, the most moving section of the book isn’t the crash, after which the survivors experienced intense fear, grief, pain, and curiosity. It’s the reality of their lives when they return home. Zuckoff diligently reports on divorces, illnesses, and the often mundane facts of ordinary lives and careers. Even the natives are not clearly better off after the survivors leave. They had a legend that one day pale spirits would climb down from the sky on a vine, and after that nothing would be the same. For all else one might say about them, they were certainly prescient.
To his credit, Zuckoff has done more than enough research to allow readers to understand all the dimensions of the soldiers’ and natives’ predicaments. For this reason, “Lost in Shangri-La” might be particularly enjoyed in a book group, in which its human themes could be teased out and discussed, or among World War II buffs seeking to add a quirky subplot to their knowledge of the Pacific theater. Certainly the appeal of the story is unmistakable, even if the book itself never quite gets off the ground.
Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.