Monday, May 9, 2011

Review - Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff

Short review: Joyriding sightseers crash into the jungle. Most die. Survivors aren't harmed by natives, don't lose limbs to gangrene, don't have to live off the land.

The Gremlin Special
Crashes into the jungle
Rescuers come soon

Disclosure: I received this book as an Advance Review Copy. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: There is a tendency to view major world-spanning events like World War II as a macroscopic clash of civilizations as nations assemble their resources and vast fleets of ships, airplanes, and armored vehicles are arrayed against one another in epic ranks of steel and destruction. But the reality is that a vast world-spanning event is really a multitude of small, personal stories involving people living in some obscure corner of the world doing nothing more than going about their daily lives. And Lost in Shangri-La drives this point home with a mostly forgotten story about survival in the jungles of New Guinea that sparked a media sensation in 1945 during the waning months of World War II.

The story, in a nutshell, involves a group of off-duty U.S. Army Air Corps technical support personnel, including a small contingent of female personnel (in the nomenclature of World War II, these were "WAC"s, because they were part of the Women's Army Corps) who decide to take a day trip to gawk from the windows of an airplane at some natives living in an isolated valley. To get to this isolated valley requires flying in a C-47 dubbed the "Gremlin Special" at high altitude through dangerously treacherous mountain terrain with unpredictable winds. Due to a collection of poor decisions by the commander of the joyride combined with the lousy flying conditions, the plane crashes, killing most of those on board. The survivors are badly injured and must deal with inhospitable jungle and dangerous natives while a rescue effort is mounted by the U.S. Army. After the survivors endure many trials and tribulations among the stone age natives, the U.S. Army manages to get them back to civilization. Despite the subtitle of the book that includes the phrase "a plane crash into the stone age", the survivors are located so quickly, and air drops of supplies established so swiftly, that it really should have been called "a plane crash into lots of airlifted goodies".

Well, sort of. One of the interesting things about the book is just how a story that is generally as bland as the historical events detailed in its pages managed to become a major media event in a world still wracked with war. The whole book is filled with explanations of what might have happened that would have been bad for the survivors, but it turns out didn't actually happen. After they crash, Zuckoff describes how difficult it would be to locate the survivors under the jungle canopy, but they find a clearing and get located within a couple days. Zuckoff writes about how they might have been threatened by the warlike natives, but the natives turn out to be welcoming and friendly. Zuckoff writes about how the survivors' infected and gangrenous wounds might have resulted in amputation of the affected limbs or even death if medical help didn't arrive in time, but then medical help arrives in time. Zuckoff describes how dangerous the parachute jumps of the rescuing party would be, but then everyone lands safely. Zuckoff details everything that could go wrong with the plan to extract the survivors from the jungle, but then everything goes well and everyone gets home safely. Over and over, the repeated theme of the book is just how dangerous things are for the survivors, but then everything turns out fine.

But what is not really dealt with much in the book is the openly racist attitudes of the Americans, and the racist and sexist overtones of the media coverage. Zuckoff deals squarely with the racist coverage with respect to the Filipino paratroopers sent on the rescue mission. But the racism inherent in the American attitudes towards the natives is only given a moderately passing acknowledgement. And the fact that it appears that it became a huge media story almost solely based upon the racist and sexist attitudes of the day. The fact that Margaret Hastings, the lone WAC survivor, was a pretty blond white woman almost alone in a trackless jungle surrounded by dark skinned natives who just stepped out of the stone ages and who were presumed by everyone to be savage headhunters. The obvious implication was the supposed danger this fair-haired damsel in distress was in from these horrible natives who clearly could only be barely restrained from raping her. Adding to the media hoopla were the lantern jawed blond heroes whose job it was to protect Hastings' virtue from these terrible savages, but it seems fairly clear that they are only important because of their supposed role as protectors. Never mind that from context it seems pretty apparent that Hastings (and many other WACs) were sexually active, the media clearly wanted to project the idea that Hastings was a demure virgin who only remained unmarried due to her intense patriotic devotion. Also never mind that most of the heavy lifting in the rescue effort was done by the Filipino paratroopers and medics, who the media completely ignored. The Filipino medics in particular who made the most dangerous jumps of all the rescuers in order to be closer to the survivors and be able to treat them more quickly, were shamefully ignored by the American media.

But this only highlights the confused relationship the media seems to have had with this story. Hastings became a media sensation because of her obvious attractiveness, but given the mores of the era, her chastity was assumed and impliedly threatened by supposedly barbaric natives, which enhanced the salacious nature of the story. Most of the rescuers were Filipino, and thus would have been considered barely more than barbarians themselves, and thus they were left out of the media reports entirely. The attitudes towards the natives of the inaptly named "Shangri-La" valley were similarly confused. In the minds of the the American aircrews and support personnel (and thus to the world at large) the valley was mistakenly assumed to be an idyllic, peaceful enclave of natives living primitive peaceful lives. But they were also at the same time described as giants, cannibals, headhunters, and worse. In short, if there was a stereotype that could be applied to the natives, then it was. Even if it contradicted some other randomly selected stereotype. But this is only given limited attention in the book, whereas the fact that the valley had actually been discovered years before by a man named Archbold, and that Archbold's expedition had had a deadly encounter with the natives. The shooting death of one of the natives by the Archbold expedition is used in the book to provide some tension, as Zuckoff implies that the inhabitants of "Shangri-La" might have been impelled to seek revenge for this killing, but like all such dire foreshadowings in the book, this does not actually result in any additional difficulties for the stranded survivors.

Except for the crash itself, which resulted in numerous deaths, the events surrounding the crash of the gremlin Special and the subsequent rescue of the survivors don't seem to be all that exciting. Zuckoff does a good job at cataloguing all of the various interesting backgrounds of the people involved: the colorful colonel who organized the rescue effort, the paratrooper whose father was a guerilla leader in the Philippines, the brave and committed Filipino paratroopers who followed him into the jungle on the rescue mission, a filmmaker who was a former actor and petty jewel thief who parachutes into the jungle drunk, and of course the survivors - a pretty independent-minded WAC, a tough and brave officer whose twin brother was killed in the crash, and a terribly injured sergeant who shoulders manfully on through his pain. But the problem is that the colorful and interesting characters are much more interesting than the story they inhabit. Some joyriders crashed, a few survived, the Army organized a successful rescue operation that went according to plan.

Although Zuckoff's treatment of the material is thorough and comprehensive, I was left wanting more. The story of the Gremlin Special survivors, despite Zuckoff's best efforts, is, save for the crash, a fairly uneventful tale of a successfully executed Army Air Corps operation. Even the natives, who were the subject to much contemporaneous speculation and fascination, turn out to be only moderately interesting insofar as they affect the story itself. More interesting is the story of the media reaction to the news, but here it seems that Zuckoff opted not to evaluate the media frenzy from a modern perspective, and instead simply chose to report the facts without editorial comment. There is purity in that approach, but it left me thinking there is another book to be written about this aspect of the media coverage in the 1940s that delves into the changed media and social landscape. On the whole, Lost in Shangri-La is a strong, informative piece of reporting, that relates in fine detail the facts surrounding the crash of the Gremlin Special, the interactions of the survivors, natives, and rescuers, and the events that resulted in bringing the three survivors to safety.

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  1. Interesting. Sounds like an overall bland read. Have you ever read Charlotte Perkins Gilman?

  2. @Julia: It was well-written but the subject matter was kind of thin. The thing that I thought was most interesting was that a story as bland as the actual events had become a media sensation at all, especially when one considers that marines were fighting on Okinawa at the same time.

  3. @Julia: Oh, and no, I have not read any of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's work. Is there anything in particular you would recommend?

  4. The racism you mention is interesting to me, especially the parts you say that the author glossed over in his telling of the story. I've been reading other non-fiction books set around the same time period and racism has played a huge part in all of them.

    Thanks for taking the time to read and review this book for the tour. I enjoyed seeing what you had to say about this one.

  5. @heathertlc: The thing that is interesting is that the racism is clearly there, but with respect to the native New Guineans, the racism of the American sightseers and media coverage is not commented upon, while the racism with respect to how the Filipino paratroopers are dealt with by the media is highlighted. It is an odd contradistinction in the book.

  6. I just have to say that you are the only reviewer that I have found who mentions Zuckoff's refusal to discuss the racist attitudes of the survivors. I also felt like Zuckoff himself was perpetuating the "primitive culture as lesser than" in the chapter where he compares the New Guineans to Americans. Was so racist I couldn't even read on.

    1. @Rachel Beaton: That was one of the things that bothered me about the book. The thing is, if those issues had been addressed, it probably would have been a much more interesting book. As it is, it was a decent historical account, but kind of flat and bland.