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Bookmarks Issue: 
54-Sept-Oct-2011
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A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II

A-LostShangri-LaJournalist and Boston University Professor Mitchell Zuckoff was a Pulitzer Prize finalist while working as a reporter for the Boston Globe. His previous works include Ponzi's Scheme: The True Story of a Financial Legend ( 3.5 of 5 Stars July/Aug 2005) and Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009).

The Topic: On May 13, 1945, a U.S. Army Air Force C-47 crashed into the side of a steep mountain on the island of Dutch New Guinea, killing all but three of the 24 passengers and crewmembers aboard: Lt. John McCollum, Sgt. Kenneth Decker, and Women's Army Corps Cpl. Margaret Hastings. The three wounded survivors suddenly found themselves in an isolated valley, surrounded by inhospitable jungle and warring Stone Age tribes who mistook them for spirits. During the weeks that followed, McCollum, Decker, and Hastings battled starvation and disease as they waited to be rescued from their inaccessible location, and it would require ingenuity, courage, and an enormous amount of luck for the Army to be able to pull it off.
Harper. 400 pages. $26.99. ISBN: 9780061988340

Seattle Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The incidents and people themselves make this a riveting story, but they would not be so alive to the reader had the author not made such skillful use of sources, including, after 60-plus years, interviews with [a member of the rescue team] and other aged participants in the adventure. Lost in Shangri-La is the most thrilling book, fiction or nonfiction, that I have read since I can't remember when." Roger K. Miller

Cleveland Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"This is an absorbing adventure right out of the Saturday-morning serials, but Zuckoff tempers the derring-do by making the local people a big part of the story. ... Lost in Shangri-La deserves a spot on the shelf of Greatest Generation nonfiction. It puts the reader smack into the jungle." James F. Sweeney

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Mitchell Zuckoff's Lost in Shangri-La delivers a feast of failures--of planning, of technology, of communication--that are resolved in a truly incredible adventure. Truly incredible? A cliché, yes, but Zuckoff's tale is something a drunk stitches together from forgotten B movies and daydreams while clutching the bar." Michael Washburn

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Zuckoff is able to glimpse events from alternate vantage points, and skillfully builds narrative tension and deft character portraits. ... As with many suspense stories, the build-up of Lost in Shangri-La is a bit more enthralling than the denouement. Yet overall Zuckoff has pulled off a remarkable feat--and held the reader firmly in the grip." David Grann

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Zuckoff, a Boston University journalism professor and former Globe reporter, excels at reconstructing the story, weaving a detailed linear narrative from diary entries, news reports, and original interviews. But as a storyteller, he too often tries to pump up the intrigue and tension in situations already brimming with both. ... While distracting, the melodramatic manipulations thankfully do not completely diminish the book's very real human emotion." Alex Spanko

Providence Journal 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Sometimes Zuckoff's thoroughness becomes tedious, and one wishes that, in addition to being a meticulous journalist, he possessed more of the flair of a James Hilton in his writing. All the same, it's hard putting down Lost in Shangri-La." Phyllis Meras

Christian Science Monitor 2.5 of 5 Stars
"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." Kelly Nuxoll

Critical Summary

Although this incredible event was widely publicized as it was occurring--the survivors were in constant contact with the outside world via radio--it has been largely forgotten today. Luckily, Zuckoff managed to track down and interview several key players, including some of the tribesmen, and the diverse threads he weaves together lend his narrative a depth and scope infrequently found in a rollicking adventure tale. Despite the Christian Science Monitor's claim that Lost in Shangri-La "never quite gets off the ground," most critics praised Zuckoff's suspenseful storytelling and vivid characterizations, but they did point out a few slow spots and melodramatic flourishes. Nevertheless, this meticulously researched and richly detailed account should leave readers breathless and feeling as if they've just emerged from the jungle themselves.