It began as an afternoon treat – an aerial tour of the hidden valley whimsically called Shangri-La. Stories about Shangri-La include tales of lush vegetation and a Stone Age civilization with people over seven feet tall. No outsider has ever set foot in Shangri-La, and very few have flown over it. The air space was just too treacherous. Yet on May 13, 1945, Colonel Peter Prossen decided to treat his staff to a sightseeing trip on a transport plane over Shangri-La.
Due to a number of factors, the plane crashed, and only three passengers survived — Corporal Margaret Hastings, Lieutenant John McCollom and Sergeant Kenneth Decker. They knew nothing about the terrain,
and have heard only terrifying stories about the natives. Mitchell Zuckoff chronicles their story in Lost in Shangri-La, and tells the tale of how a group of brave Filipino-American soldiers mounted a rescue operation that, by all accounts, offered little chance of survival, much less success.
I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, nor do I read a lot of history books, yet I couldn’t put this book down. It’s that thrilling. Zuckoff is an award winning journalist, and I can see why. He writes with journalistic detachment, and creates an exciting, moving narrative because of it. I love that Zuckoff doesn’t editorialize. Opinions expressed in the book are from interviews and personal documents like journals. While readers can generally guess at Zuckoff’s own slant on certain subjects (e.g. a certain comment showed frat boy humour), his language is detached, and he presents a balanced view: “Changes in a valley during the ensuing decades have been dramatic, but whether for better or worse is a matter of debate.” The picture he proceeds to paint is bleak, suggesting that the changes have been in fact for the worse, but Zuckoff uses facts (poverty levels), imagery (native elders now begging for change) and interviews (a quote from a documentary filmmaker) to make his case.
I also love Zuckoff’s attention to detail. Even the people who died in the crash were fully fleshed out because of the details Zuckoff mentions. About John McCollom’s twin Robert, who was on the plane as well, Zuckoff notes that the twins were “known to family and friends as ‘The Inseparables.’” When Robert got married, “both McColloms were in uniform [at the wedding photo]; the only way to tell them apart is by Adele’s winsome smile in Robert’s direction.” Private Eleanor Hanna, who was also on the plane “had a reputation…for singing wherever she went.” Sergeant Helen Kent, who’d lost her husband in a military plane crash, left behind her best friend Sergeant Ruth Coster, who was “swamped with paperwork” and couldn’t join the tour. These details made even these secondary characters real to me, which I appreciated.
Probably the most tense moment in the book was the account of the survivors’ first encounter with the natives. All they’ve heard was that these natives were war-like and cannibalistic. “We haven’t any weapon,” McCollom tells Margaret and Decker. “There is nothing to do but act friendly. Smile as you’ve never smiled before, and pray to God it works.” The survivors smiled and held out Charms hard candies as peace offerings.
Even better, Zuckoff has interviewed some natives who were children when the plane crash occurred, so he’s able to present their perspective on the events as well: “[Yaralok] saw creatures that resembled people, but they didn’t look like any people he’d ever seen. The skin on their faces was light, and they had straight hair. The skin on their bodies was strange. They had feet but no toes. Only later would he learn that coverings called clothing shielded their skin and that shoes encased their toes.” This, I think, was when it really struck me how alien these cultures were to each other. Yaralok and his tribe have never seen fair skin or Western clothing, much less Charms hard candies.
It’s hard to imagine in these days when we have such a global culture and meeting people with different clothing and skin colour is a daily occurrence. But what if we encounter someone who doesn’t meet any of our ideas of humanity? What if I meet a “creature” that looked like a person, but had, say, green skin, was covered in scales and was holding out to me brightly coloured balls of goo? How would I react? By telling the story from both perspectives, Zuckoff recounts cultural misunderstandings and ways in which humans adapt when faced with the unfamiliar.
Zuckoff also gives due credit to the Filipino American soldiers who mounted the rescue mission. From the always cheerful Corporal Camilo “Rammy” Ramirez to the shy, efficient Sergeant Benjamin “Doc” Bulatao, the Filipino Americans were heroes, parachuting into the valley on a potential suicide mission. It was courageous, especially in light of the discrimination Zuckoff shows these soldiers have faced as Filipinos. Part of this discrimination, which frustrated their captain, Earl Walter Jr, is the way the media coverage ignored their contribution. So I’m glad Zuckoff remedies this media oversight in his book. The courage of Walter and his team is balanced by their “Bahala na” (Come what may) attitude, which paints a portrait of the team as cheerful in the face of danger.
Filled with first-hand accounts, journal entries and personal observations, Mitchell Zuckoff’s Lost in Shangri-La is an exciting book, both hopeful and tragic. No wonder Zuckoff became a finalist for a Pulitzer in investigative reporting.