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

A true but little-known story from World War II resurfaces in this account of a plane crash that stranded 24 Americans in a Stone Age society.

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Lost in Shangri-La:
A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff
HarperCollins
384 pp.

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If some stories are too good to be true, is it possible that some stories are too true to be good? In his latest nonfiction narrative, author Mitchell Zuckoff seems determined to find out.

Lost in Shangri-La tells the real-life story of a World War II plane crash into a Dutch New Guinea valley so isolated that the inhabitants have not yet discovered the wheel. This remarkable event made headlines even at the time. Reporters from the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune rode along in the rescue plane, seeking intimate details about the one surviving woman – a beautiful, unmarried WAC. Not long after, a roguish documentary maker parachuted in to capture key scenes on film. Everyone involved, it seemed, kept a diary. As a result, “Lost in Shangri-La” is a jungle of personal and historical details.

Some readers may find these details welcome. They will learn about the reception of WACs in World War II; the history of military gliders; and the bellicose customs of an aboriginal people who created their own endless war on an Edenic island, even as they knew nothing about the world war raging around the rest of the globe. Readers will also learn, in exhaustive detail, the biographies of the victims, survivors, rescuers, and native hosts – a cast that approaches 50 characters.

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However, 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. He also throws in the occasional commentary on the Americans’ pejoratives attitude toward the natives, asides that keep the author and the reader in the role of historical voyeurs rather than ersatz travelers sharing in the adventure.

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