Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Truth is stranger than fiction–if you need proof, read this book.  It’s the story of a plane crash during World War II.  The plane is American, carrying 24 American military personnel and it crashes into a remote area of what was then called Dutch New Guinea.  The flight itself had no military significance; it was a reward meant to boost the morale of hardworking staff and designed to be a sightseeing trip of the beautiful and otherwise inaccessible landscape of the island.

But the unexpected happens.  The plane crashes and the military is left to figure out how to rescue the survivors.  Nothing in the Army Field Manual covers this situation:  stranded personnel (including a female soldier), some wounded and hence unable to walk any significant distance, surrounded by hostile terrain and the Japanese enemy, in an unmapped area without enough clear space to safely land an airplane.  And then the Dani people from the nearby village of Uwambo show up.

So now on one hand are the surviving Americans, trying to deal with an unfamiliar landscape, an unfamiliar people and the grief of losing friends and family in the crash.  On the other hand are the Dani, trying to figure out the meaning of these people who literally fell from the sky.

What follows is a riveting tale, in which everyone is forced to improvise.  How will the Americans and the villagers communicate without a common language?  Should the villagers, isolated from the world for centuries, treat the crash survivors as honored guests or dangerous enemies?  And how will the military overcome the problems of the terrain to rescue the stranded soldiers?

All these questions and more are deftly answered by Mitchell Zuckoff in this appealing, well written true story that reads like an adventure novel. I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys books by Jon Krakauer, Michael Crichton and Laura Hillenbrand — and movies by Steven Spielberg.

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