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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Lost In Shangri-La

I love adventure/exploration/ survival stories. Needless to say, the newly published book Lost In Shangri-La fits those criterion exactly. One of the best of this genre I’ve read in a long time. From the New York Times Book Review
Picture of WAC Margaret Hastings & New Guinea Tribesmen
Published: June 3, 2011
"Adventure" these days is merely an experience that allows for a modestly elevated number of variables — renting a car without a GPS unit, for instance, or visiting a friend in East Flatbush. Not that the world is denuded of excitement. It’s just that true adventure requires something that defies an itinerary: failure. Failure is the engine of adventure.

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. Zuckoff is no fabulist, though, and in this brisk book he narrates the tense yet peaceful five weeks during 1945 that three plane crash survivors spent immersed "in a world that time didn’t forget. Time never knew it existed." Even at the level of exposition, the book is breathless.
In the final days of World War II, 24 bored soldiers and members of the Women’s Army Corps embark on an aeronautic joy ride over a newly "discovered" landscape — known today as the Baliem Valley — in the dangerously isolated mountains of New Guinea, mountains populated by thousands of combative "cannibals," where "a lifetime of war was an inheritance every child could count on."
Perhaps owing to a lethal combination of foolishness and inexperience, the plane crashes, eventually killing all aboard but a beautiful Wac and two all-American G.I.’s. They are unreachable except by parachute — or plane crash — and surrounded by startled warrior tribes; a contingent of Filipino-American paratroopers joins the survivors to aid in their rescue. With no place to land an airplane, the mountain air too thin for heli­copters, and the threat of thousands of hostile Japanese soldiers hiding between the injured group and the sea, Army commanders decide on the most reasonable extraction: a cargo plane with a big hook. At this point, you should know if Zuckoff’s book appeals to you.
The pleasures — and values — of this story reside in admiration of fortitude in a vortex of treacherous circumstances. It is the 1940s, though, so primitive sexual politics — Margaret Hastings, the surviving Wac, is repeatedly praised for her unexpected "gumption," and the Army’s first airdrop includes food, blankets and lipstick — abounds, as does the lazy racism of "cockpit anthropoligists even after the New Guineans prove indispensable. Zuckoff doesn’t editorialize, probably because this is an adventure tale; insofar as nobody can confront ingrained gender bias or cultural chauvinism while looking across a clearing at a war-­painted, spear-wielding expeditionary force, the book’s vitality derives from a contagious sympathy with its subjects’ circumstances. But it’s a fine line.
Technicolor chivalry and cultural atavism aside, "Lost in Shangri-La" tells of the first contact between disoriented, combative cultures, one of the final first-contacts in human history. It’s a tale of bravery, loyalty, trust and silly, often frightening miscommunication. For example, white sky gods figure prominently in the local eschatology, and unbeknown to the Americans, tribal leaders greet their arrival as a prophecy fulfilled. While the Americans run swap meets, debates rage over whether to kill the whites to stall the apocalypse.
Ultimately, Zuckoff’s story is heartbreaking. From the moment the New Guineans choose to aid the stranded Americans, their culture is jerked forward into a callous, evangelizing modernity. Each day, the American forces receive an airdrop, often containing weapons and cowrie shells — used as currency — inadvertently introducing two hallmarks of the modern West: firearms and inflation. Today, Zuckoff writes, "elderly native men in penis gourds . . . charge a small fee to pose for photos, inserting boar tusks through passages in their nasal septums to look fierce. More often, they look lost." By the end of Zuckoff’s narrative, it’s clear that the Americans, however painful and anguishing the ordeal, were hardly victims. After all, they experienced the thrills of adventure. The New Guineans, by contrast, inherited a tragedy.


Montanagirl said...

Very sad tale.

Arkansas Patti said...

Non-fiction survival stories are right up my alley. Will check my library. Thanks

EcoRover said...

"Failure is the engine of adventure:" I like that. Sad lopsided cultural exchange though.

Janie said...

Sounds like an interesting story.

Janie said...

The above comment went right through, so I guess the comment problems here are over.
BTW, your suggested cure for the comment problem has worked for me on other blogs. I just don't check the "stay signed in" box and the comment goes right through. Didn't have to resort to that here, though.

NCmountainwoman said...

I just ordered this book from our local bookstore. My husband will love it since he watches and reads almost anything about WWII.

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

This is a really interesting story, and I appreciate having learned about it through your excellent and thoughtful review. Thanks!