x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Lost in Shangri-La: Crash survivors wait for rescue among cannibals

A rollicking, real-life adventure tale about three Americans whose plane crashed in a remote valley in New Guinea during the Second World War gets a bit too academic.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper Collins)
Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff (Harper Collins)

A Boston University journalism professor, Mitchell Zuckoff, clearly felt he had a corking story when he stumbled on archive materials concerning a US plane in wartime New Guinea that came down in a populous valley untouched by the rise of civilisation. Three Americans survived the crash and their journals and reminiscences - especially the unremittingly sassy reports of one Margaret Hastings, who laughed off gangrene - supply the skeleton of Zuckoff's narrative.

As if to furnish his students with a model for the reportorial virtue of balance, Zuckoff also chases up the personal testimonies of the Dani people, cannibal pig farmers locked in a tribal war that stretches back into the mists of time, though mostly pleasant for all that. A third plot strand concerns the buccaneering efforts of a mainly Filipino recon unit to get the survivors out.

The story itself is indeed rollicking, movie matinee stuff. There's lots of fascinating ethnographic lore about the people of the valley, and "His Girl Friday" quipping among the American interlopers. Yet Zuckoff's narration is so in love with research, so solicitous about drawing out every potentially resonant thread, that Lost in Shangri-La comes to less of an adventure yarn and more like a bundle of footnotes.