Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
Genre: Non-fiction, history
Publisher: Harper, 2011
Read for: Indie Lit Awards
The nonfiction award winner for the Indie Lit Awards tells the tale of a hidden valley in New Guinea and the plane that crashes there at the end of World War II. The paltry group of survivors -- one women and two men -- are severely injured, grieving the loss of their comrades that perished on the plane, and fearful of the native inhabitants of the untouched valley, who are rumored to be warlike and cannibalistic. Lost in Shangri-La is the story of the survivors and the indigenous people interacting and the fascinating and perilous rescue mission to get them out of the difficult-to-reach valley.
While this book was my second favorite of the five Indie Lit Award shortlist books, I think it was certainly deserving of the win. The story it told was unique and thrilling -- a hidden valley untouched by modern man, a dangerous plane crash with little hope of rescue, and the added unique element of a military woman being involved in an era when women in the military were not common. There were definitely moments in this book where I felt the tension, and the problems were clear and at times, seemingly unsurmountable. The events were relayed with excellent detail that brought me into the event.
The reason for this excellent detail is Zuckoff's impeccable research. He covers his bases with interviews, letters, and photographs, even visiting Shangri-La to get the perspective of the people who remembered the plane crash and the way it overturned their previously secluded way of life. The human detail was fascinating and gave the book its real charm; while simply recounting the events would have been interesting, adding the perspectives of nearly every player made it thrilling.
Another aspect of the book that led to its selection as the nonfiction award winner was the fact that it was readable, yet intelligent. It provided information that was new -- I knew nothing about planes and gliders, for example -- but it wasn't overly dense. Part of it is the nature of the story -- a book about a rescue from a hidden valley is going to be lighter and more exciting to read than a complex political event (at least for an apolitical person like myself) -- but part of it is the skill with which Zuckoff presented his story.
Lost in Shangri-La is exciting, well-written and researched, and unique, telling a story with which few will be familiar. Any World War II buff will enjoy adding this story to the vast collection of works about World War II, and many who may not be greatly interested in history will still find something to appreciate in Lost in Shangri-La.
Warnings: Graphic descriptions of plane crash, injury, and native warfare, language