The novelist H. Rider Haggard once remarked that he hoped to spin tales that held his readers in the “grip.” Nonfiction writers face a challenge: They cannot concoct stories of suspense but instead must find them amid the clutter of history.
In his compelling new book, “Lost in Shangri-La,” Mitchell Zuckoff has uncovered, and vividly reconstructed, such an astonishing tale. On May 13, 1945, as World War II was nearing an end, a transport plane carrying 24 members of the U.S. Army crashed on what was then Dutch New Guinea. Most of the passengers died immediately, but three survived, including a daring 30-year-old female corporal named Margaret Hastings. They found themselves trapped in a mysterious mountain valley, a place that for centuries had been completely isolated, evoking Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Lost World.” As Zuckoff writes, the survivors had landed in “a world that time didn’t forget. Time never knew it existed.” Although the press would refer to the realm as Shangri-La, it was, in fact, a foreboding environment of merciless jungle. “Everything . . . had tentacles,” Hastings wrote in her diary. And the survivors were not alone; they were surrounded by tribes engaged in cannibalistic warfare.
Zuckoff recounts how Hastings and her companions attempted to escape, battling disease and hunger. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army tried to rescue them, sending in paratroopers and gliders. Threaded throughout this tale of adventure is a deeper story about the collision of two distinct cultures — one, as Zuckoff puts it, “on the brink of the Atomic Age,” and the other “in the Stone Age.” Each is engulfed in its own form of warfare; each sees the world through a separate prism.
The book has an immediacy born of extensive reporting. Zuckoff draws on declassified military records, letters and Hastings’s detailed diary. He tracked down a survivor of the crash, who, more than six decades later, was living peacefully in Oregon. Zuckoff also visited New Guinea and interviewed members of the tribe, who recalled encountering Hastings and her party. (The tribe had originally viewed its visitors as “spirits” who had descended on a vine; according to a prophecy, their arrival “would herald the End of Days.”)
From this abundant material, Zuckoff is able to glimpse events from alternate vantage points, and skillfully builds narrative tension and deft character portraits. He has a sharp eye for the revealing detail. Moments before the plane crashes, he notes that one of the passengers chanted, “Oh, what is so rare as a June day in May?” — a reference to a poem about a medieval knight’s quest for the Holy Grail. After her close friend died of wounds, Hastings, who had lost her shoes and who was suffering from gangrene, wrote in her diary, “I just sat there and shook and all I could think was: ‘Now the shoes belong to me.’ ”
Hastings emerges as a striking heroine. And she provides Zuckoff a way to illuminate the shifting cultural perceptions of women within Western society. She was part of the Women’s Army Corps, a group of non-combatants that were among the first females to serve in the U.S. Army. Hastings, who was smart and attractive, may not have shared the consciousness of a feminist, yet she was a pioneer nonetheless. She remained defiantly single and independent. She once remarked, “I’m not sure I go for the kind of man who’s supposed to make a good husband.” She wrote letters to friends, frankly discussing romantic encounters with men — what she called “blanket parties.” In the jungle, pressing on stoically despite severe burns and hunger, she upended the notion that women were there only to “Free a Man to Fight,” as the slogan of the Women’s Army Corps professed. An Army captain said of Hastings, “She had a lot of gumption and a lot of guts.”
Ultimately, the encounter between Hastings and her fellow survivors and the inhabitants of the valley is as comic as it is frightening, plagued by misperceptions and miscommunications. As with many suspense stories, the build-up of “Lost in Shangri-La” is a bit more enthralling than the denouement. Yet overall Zuckoff has pulled off a remarkable feat — and held the reader firmly in the grip.
A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
By Mitchell Zuckoff
Harper. 384 pp. $26.99