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Primitive Peace within a World at War

Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

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image via layersofthought.net

Mitchell Zuckoff has unearthed a compelling story of a lost world amid the global conflagration of WWII. Under his hand, however, the story’s facts aren’t given their just deserts. Here’s the story, writ small:

A group of American army types stationed in New Guinea as Allied forces push relentlessly toward Japan decide to take a military version of a tourist flight to see an unspoiled area of this primitive island. The plane crashes (due to pilot error?) and only three survive: Corporal Margaret Hastings, Tech Sergeant Kenneth Decker, and Lieutenant John McCollom. McCollom survived with minimal injuries, but Decker and Hastings were severely injured.

Luckily, the USAAF is able to locate the three, send paratroopers and parachuting medics to help them and feed them until a method can be devised to rescue the three. Meanwhile, the hapless survivors – and their ad hoc rescuers – are confronted with New Guinea tribesmen, and these lost people from a lost world and American military personnel form emotional bonds of sorts. In the end, the rescue is an exotic one: a glider is guided into the area, and those on the ground snared on a cable by an Air Force plane. 

The story’s details, as depicted by Zuckoff, are all too brief to make a full length book, and it seems to this reader that, no doubt at the urging of agent or editor, he added a lot of fluff to fill out the story. A book that could have been a suspenseful page-turner – coupled with this encounter with lost people – seems diluted with minutiae about the primary characters, their families, even that of peripheral characters.

One of the skills of both fiction and non-fiction writing is parceling the story out in ways that keep the story’s energy building – until its climax and denouement. I’ve always been one, whether reviewing a finished book or critiquing one in progress, to honor the author’s strategy in orchestrating a story, in unwrapping the characters, both amid a vivid scenic background. With Zuckoff’s story, I’m fatally tempted to critique, but, alas, I won't.

I don’t want to say that the author is a poor writer. To the contrary, his research was formidable and thorough. There are moments of great prose here, and moments of elation, pathos and whimsy – enough to enthrall readers despite the roadblocks thrown in their way. Despite the telling, this is a great story, and readers will both learn and enjoy its passage.

 

My rating: 15 of 20 stars