This WWII survival story kept me at attention over the five page-turning days I read it (in case you aren’t impressed, that’s pretty fast for me). Lost in Shangri-La is the true story of how an army airplane crashed in New Guinea during World War II and the survivors encountered Stone Age cannabilistic tribes in their quest for survival. And besides surviving the plane crash and cannibals, there was the terrain, weather, injuries, gangrene, and the fact that Shangri-La was completely inaccessible to the outside world (unless your plane crashed over it). So even if they survived all of that, there was the question of how they would actually get out of Shangri-La.
Our story begins with a women’s army group stationed in New Guinea during WWII. You get a background on women’s role in the army during that time as well as the South Pacific perspective of the war. Zuckoff also focuses on the Philippines, where one of our principle rescuers (Earl Walter) grew up and whose father is there fighting against the Japanese. Leading a regiment of Filipino-Americans, Walter campaigns to join the fighting in the Philippines but finds himself immersed in what he later describes as the highlight of his life.
Not only do we have our survivors’ tales, but we have Walter’s search for a lasting contribution to the war, as well as the fascinating heritage of the people of New Guinea. If you think WWII was a long time ago, it’s the space age compared to these tribes who have yet to discover the wheel. Zuchoff describes them beautifully in the following passage:
“They had tamed fire but hadn’t discovered the wheel. They caked their bodies with clay when mourning but had never developed pottery. They spoke complex languages – the verb that means ‘hit’ or ‘kill’ could be inflected more than two thousand ways – but had a single word to describe both time and place…Their only numbers were one, two, and three; everything beyond three was ‘many.’ In a world awash for color, they had terms for only two…They ornamented themselves with necklaces and feathers but created no lasting works of art…They feared the ghosts of their ancestors but worshiped no gods. They were gentle with children but hacked off girls’ fingers to honor dead relatives…They build thirty-foot-tall watchtowers, but their only furniture was a funeral chair for the dead. They grew strong tobacco but never distilled their crops into liquor…They valued cleverness but not curiosity. Loyalty had special significance. To greet close friends and relations, they said Hal-loak-nak, ‘Let me eat your feces.’ Its true meaning: ‘I will do the unthinkable for you.'”
Can you imagine the shit-storm (and not in a friendly poo-eating way) that would be created by dropping a bunch of Americans into these people’s lives? Read this book and imagine no more!
This book fits my bill for a five star read, I couldn’t put it down, I learned a lot of new things, and it changed the way I thought about certain things. That final point came in the epilogue, in which Zuckoff describes the fate of the people of Shangri-La (currently called the Baliem Valley). It makes you wonder if people who are considered “Stone Age” could be better off with modern technology or not. It also was an eye opener in terms of how these people’s legends changed to include the “spirit people” who visited them so long ago. Image meeting a tribal group and suddenly you are a part of their spoken history, legends, and even spiritual beliefs. It was surreal, if not a bit scary, to think about.
Zuckoff manages to write a historical war story with just the right blend of story-telling and history. He focuses on a few key individuals, giving their background so you know who they are, and he also gives a lot of information on the context of the war without dragging the pace of the book down. A definite recommend.
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