Saturday, July 23, 2011

Lost in Shangri-La by Michael Zuckoff

Lost in Shangri-La by Michael Zuckoff: The Epic True Story of a Plane Crash into the Stone Age
Copyright 2011
Harper - Nonfiction/History/WWII
370 pages, incl. notes, sources and bibliography


Near the end of WWII, a group of nurses and soldiers stationed on what was then known as Dutch New Guinea left for a sightseeing flight over the interior of the island. Dubbed "Shangri-La," the island's interior was inhabited by natives whose daily lives involved almost continuous battles between their tribes. Because of the rugged terrain around them, the natives were extremely isolated and unacquainted with people of other skin colors or traditions. They were also superstitious and sometimes cannibalistic.

A series of small mistakes on the flight into the dangerous interior led to a horrendous crash of the plane, the Gremlin Special, into the side of a mountain. In spite of the tremendous wreckage and resulting fire, 3 of the plane's 24 crew and passengers managed to escape. But, they emerged injured and lost high on a mountain in a land where people still lived Stone-Age lifestyles and Japanese soldiers hid in the hills.

What happened to the survivors? Given the terrain and the fact that the enemy watched from the hillsides, how would rescuers find them and bring the injured survivors to safety? Would the rescuers even survive their perilous journey into the island's interior?

What I disliked about Lost in Shangri-La:

Lost in Shangri-La wasn't quite what I expected, but that may be my own fault. When I see "WWII" and "plane crash" or "survival" together, I'm interested. I was expecting to read about soldiers who crashed into the jungle, not a sight-seeing plane. It's possible that I merely skimmed the promotional material. The real-life characters were not quite what I expected, in other words, but that didn't really matter.

I did, however, dislike what the author had to say about the one surviving female. She was beautiful and she knew it. One of her fellow survivors was a man she had turned down when he asked her out on a date. She had to be tough and adventurous to have even ended up in a place like Dutch New Guinea, but I thought the emphasis on her beauty went a little overboard.

What I liked about Lost in Shangri-La:

Irritation about the focus on the beautiful Margaret Hastings aside, I think the book was marvelously, thoroughly researched and fascinating. The author delves into culture -- the differences between the natives of the island's interior and the people who have explored or crashed inside their isolated home, the beliefs and traditions of the natives. He also describes the details of the crash and how the survivors managed to stay alive, the variety of plans floated to rescue them and the eventual decision and outcome.

The bottom line:

While I would not say Lost in Shangri-La is the most exciting survival book I've ever read, nor a favorite, I enjoyed the reading and would say it's above average as far as the research and detail. I thought the author focused a little too much on the negative characteristics of many of the people involved in all aspects -- flight, survival, rescue. But, I found myself truly admiring the fortitude of the survivors. It's not the heart-pounding kind of rescue/survival story I like best, so Lost in Shangri-La is not a personal favorite, but I think it's well-written.

©2011 Nancy Horner. All rights reserved. If you are reading this post at a site other than Bookfoolery and Babble or its RSS feed, you are reading a stolen feed. Email for written permission to reproduce text or photos.


  1. I've read a couple great reviews of this one and am anxious to give it a go.

  2. Kathy,

    It's a good book. If I rated books, it would have gotten a 4/5.

  3. Love your thorough review. I have a much better idea now of whether I want to read it or not!

  4. I am reading this right now and I agree with you about the attention on Margaret. It was a bit much sometimes!

  5. Jill,

    Thanks! It's a very good book, just not a favorite. :) I'm happy if my review was helpful!

  6. I am going to read this one for one of my book groups in the next couple of weeks. Thank you for a review that confirmed I will enjoy it

  7. I am not sure about this one, and am glad to have read your review, as I also had some different expectations from it. I also might not like the unending praise of the female character's beauty. That sort of stuff typically annoys me. This was a very interesting and thoughtful review. Thanks for sharing it!

  8. Kelly,

    I'm glad you agree with me about that! I thought he went overboard describing Margaret. So, she was pretty. She was also adventurous and determined. I thought that was what counted.


    Super! I hope you enjoy it. Sounds like you've already decided you're going to. :)


    On the plus side, he went into great detail about the other people involved, too. It was just annoying to keep reading about how pretty Margaret was. I just didn't think that was what was important, you know?

  9. I enjoyed this book - agree that I wouldn't call it the best survival book, but I did learn something I didn't know before. Here is my review if you are interested:

  10. Christa,

    Your review is excellent. It's been over a month since I finished reading Shangri-La and you mentioned a few things I'd already forgotten. Thanks for the link!

  11. Anonymous6:49 AM

    I just finished the book last night. I didn't really think his talking about Margaret was a big deal, she was the only female in a war, let alone a jungle setting. She is bound to get more attention. There had to be some sexual tension there. I actually thought the plane information was tedious, but overall would recommend it. Also not my favorite book, but something very different to read.

  12. Great review! I didn't realize it was a sightseeing plane either. It still sounds worth checking out, though. I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.

  13. Men always seem to care about womens beauty. Pfft. I'd heard the author interviewed and while it sounded pretty fascinating, not something that I ran out to get.

  14. Anonymous,

    Margaret was certainly not the only female involved in WWII, nor the only female on the island. There were a number of other women on that plane; she was the only woman who survived. I don't think a woman alone with men always equates to sexual tension, myself. If anything, she seemed to treat the other two survivors like brothers. The author did show some sexual tension between her and her strapping young rescuer, but since everything was well documented and there was no apparent outcome that had a direct bearing on her pretty face, I thought the emphasis on her looks was misplaced. I did enjoy reading it, though.


    Yes, it's worth reading. I enjoyed the book and it didn't really matter so much that it was a sightseeing trip. Had it been a bombing run or something similar, there wouldn't have been a woman on board and the victims might have crashed even deeper into enemy territory, so it did mean some changes from what I expected but it was still a good read.


    Apparently, I like a good he-man survival story. LOL I really didn't mind that it turned out to be something different, but I might not have been quite as eager to read it if I'd realized the crash occurred during a sightseeing trip and the war ended before they returned.

  15. Anonymous10:00 PM

    Wonderful review! I saw the author of this book on The Daily Show with John Stewart last month and he didn't quite sell me on the book then, and with your review, I'm not sure how high this one will make it on the TBR pile, but it's always great to read an honest review about both the good and the bad!

  16. Wereadtoknow,

    Ah, interesting. You're not the first to mention that the author was less than persuasive. It was obviously very thoroughly researched and I think that's what I liked best about the book. I was disappointed with his focus on the negative characteristics of the survivors and rescuers, but the story was interesting from both the survival and cultural aspects. Just not the best I've ever read. I wouldn't rush to read it, but it's worth reading.


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