Sunday, May 15, 2011

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

Title: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
Author: Mitchell Zuckoffx 
Year: 2011
Page: 400
Genre: Non-Fiction - History

FTC Disclosure: Free ARC from HarperCollins in x

Summary (from
On May 13, 1945, twenty-four American servicemen and WACs boarded a transport plane for a sightseeing trip over Shangri-La, a beautiful and mysterious valley deep within the jungle-covered mountains of Dutch New Guinea. Unlike the peaceful Tibetan monks of James Hilton's bestselling novel Lost Horizon, this Shangri-La was home to spear-carrying tribesmen, warriors rumored to be cannibals. But the pleasure tour became an unforgettable battle for survival when the plane crashed. 

Miraculously, three passengers pulled through. Margaret Hastings, barefoot and burned, had no choice but to wear her dead best friend's shoes. John McCollom, grieving the death of his twin brother also aboard the plane, masked his grief with stoicism. Kenneth Decker, too, was severely burned and suffered a gaping head wound.

Emotionally devastated, badly injured, and vulnerable to the hidden dangers of the jungle, the trio faced certain death unless they left the crash site. Caught between man-eating headhunters and enemy Japanese, the wounded passengers endured a harrowing hike down the mountainside--a 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.

Drawn from interviews, declassified U.S. Army documents, personal photos and mementos, a survivor's diary, a rescuer's journal, and original film footage, Lost in Shangri-La recounts this incredible true-life adventure for the first time. Mitchell Zuckoff reveals how the determined trio--dehydrated, sick, and in pain--traversed the dense jungle to find help; how a brave band of paratroopers risked their own lives to save the survivors; and how a cowboy colonel attempted a previously untested rescue mission to get them out.

By trekking into the New Guinea jungle, visiting remote villages, and rediscovering the crash site, Zuckoff also captures the contemporary natives; remembrances of the long-ago day when strange creatures fell from the sky. A riveting work of narrative nonfiction that vividly brings to life an odyssey at times terrifying, enlightening, and comic, Lost in Shangri-La is a thrill ride from beginning to end.

First Sentence:
On a rainy day in May 1945, a Western Union messenger made his rounds through the quiet village of Owego, in upstate New York.

My Thoughts:

Why this book?
  • While history books aren't usually my genre, this one promised to read like a fast-paced adventure fiction. Besides, my husband would really enjoy this one since he loves reading about wars, so I thought this would be a good contender for our "read aloud" together (me reading it out loud to him as he prefers audio and I prefer prints)
First thought:
  • I am just glad I wasn't on that plane...
Cover Art:
  • I have an ARC so my cover was actually the second picture posted (the green one). I actually prefer this version over the one that got released (the more orange one) because of the jungle. I still think the cover could be a bit more attractive - maybe an actual picture of Shagnri-La / Baliem Valley and/or the natives?
  • Fitting, interesting and concise
  • Easy to read, with a subtle sense of humor (when appropriate). 
  • The author had conducted extensive research for this book and it showed - not just the event, but the different characters mentioned in the book too. Because of that, sometimes it got side-tracked a bit (e.g. by providing the background of a non-key-but-not-too-minor characters). We read this book together over a couple of months due to our schedule, and sometimes I had to think back about what happened or whom that person was.
  • The story was engaging though as we really wanted to find out what happened - did they beat the odds? If so, how? 
  • We really got a sense of whom the main characters were - especially since we got read some of their diary entries. 
  • It was really interesting to read about the natives, and the perceptions and/or assumptions from both sides. I had always been fascinated by cultural differences so I really enjoyed reading this part. I am a little sadden about how they turned out as reported in the epilogue. 
  • There were quite a lot of people mentioned in the book - some played a bigger part than others. I guessed the author just wanted to acknowledge them, and documented their role in the story. I was particularly glad he played special tributes to the paratroopers, especially the medics  - they deserved the kudos.
  • It wasn't until we finished the book that I found a list of all characters at the end of the book! Would have been better if the list was placed in the beginning of the book so I knew it was there to start with! Typically I tried not to flip to the back of any books in case I read the ending by accident...
  • I was pleased the author included an epilogue.
  • I couldn't imagine having to go through what the main 3 characters went through. There definitely were some touching moments, especially when it came to McCollom - he was so young and yet so mature
What I Learned:
  • I didn't know about Dutch New Guinea and its involvement in WWII. Definitely learned quite a few new things in this book!
  • The husband enjoyed this book as I predicted. I asked him how he'd rate out of 5 stars. He wouldn't give me an answer as he hates rating things (and I ask him to rate things a lot lol)
Read this Author again?
  • Yes!

Margaret described a lesson she carried with her from the valley. "Fear is something I don't think you experience unless you have a choice. If you have a choice, then you're liable to be afraid. But without a choice, what is there to be afraid of?You just go along doing what has to be done." (p316)

Overall Rating:
4 Stars.

All reviews and posts are copyrighted by Christa @ Mental Foodie. Please do not use or reprint them without written permission.


  1. I'm so glad to read your review! I got this too and was wondering if I would like it, but it sounds really good, and I'm glad to know about that list at the end of the book!

  2. I liked this book a lot! I thought the adventure story was well-told and kept me reading, and I was impressed by all of the author's research.

  3. @rhapsodyinbooks - While it's not a "must read", I would still recommend it. I'm going to give the copy to my father-in-law as I'm sure he'd really like it too. Can't wait to see what you think!

    @Kim - totally agree!

  4. Thanks for reviewing this- adding it to the list of gifts to get the Hubs for Father's Day! :)

  5. @heather719 - I hope your hubby will like it!

  6. I do not remember that last quote but liked it a lot. Like you I did not know about Dutch New Guinea so I learned something new.

  7. @Esme - the quote is from the last page (at least in the ARC!) I thought it was rather insightful!

  8. I love that first thought! LOL

    And I'm a huge fan of relevant epilogues, so I loved that the author had such a detailed one here.

  9. @Heather J - seriously I don't know what's worse, to have died in the crash, or went through what the survivors did (especially when they don't know if they'd be rescued!) I agree with you about relevant epilogues!

  10. Great review! Thanks for dropping by my blog and leaving a link.

  11. @bookfool - thanks for visiting! I enjoy reading other reviews on the same book to see how similar or different they are :)

  12. Thanks for pointing me to your review of this book. What I found especially sad was how young many of the people were when they eventually died (in the epilogue)