Most recently, he published "Frozen in Time", a story about two WWII planes that crashed and went missing in Greenland. But what really put him on the map, at least with bloggers, was a very similar story that he published in 2011 - "Lost in Shangri-La". I'd been hearing amazing things about his work for years, so impulsively I ordered both books on audio from the library. I love a good true story.
Synopsis: On May 13, 1945, a group of 24 enlisted American men and women stationed at a military base in Hollandia, Indonesia, took off in a transport plane intending to do a little sight-seeing. Their destination was a fly-over of Dutch New Guinea (an island off the north coast of Australia) to see the undeveloped, dense jungles where there was rumored to be seven foot tall cannibalistic natives. The plane crashed in one of those dense jungles, going up in flames, leaving only three survivors...two men and a woman. The three had little food and no shelter, and two of the three were severely burned and injured. Soon gangrene set in, and they knew that if they were not discovered soon, they would perish.
It wasn't long before the much-feared natives detected the presence of visitors. But instead of being vicious, murderous flesh-eaters, they were curious and helpful. In fact, because the Dani tribesmen were so isolated, they'd never seen white people before, thought them spirits and treated them with reverence. They struggled with communication and confusion of customs and behaviors, but the two groups became fond of one another. Little did the Dani know that in helping the survivors, their protected little civilization had just been inadvertently altered forever.
Eventually, a rescue plane spotted the survivors, dropped a transistor radio and supplies to them (including lipstick!), and a highly publicized but extremely dangerous rescue mission was soon being planned. Because of the density of the jungle, surrounding mountains and high elevation, there weren't many options, but ultimately they used a glider plane to get into the valley and land, then a towplane to pull them all out.
Zuckoff has thoroughly researched this amazing story through interviews (some even with children of the Dani tribesmen), and journals, and leaves no stone unturned without offering judgement. He leaves that to the reader.
My thoughts: I was absolutely mesmerized with this book. It had all the elements of a great non-fiction story...action, tragedy, courage, danger. And Zuckoff lays it all out for us with conversational and factual storytelling.
What was curious to me was what he DIDN'T say, but could be read between the lines. Because there was a woman survivor in the mix, the military airdropped lipstick and Kotex in the boxes of supplies, but she never did get a decent pair of underwear despite her requests. And would there have been as much media coverage had the survivors been all men?
I was also perplexed at the ultimate fate of the three survivors. None of them seemed to live happy lives, with a trail of divorces and illness left in their wake. It made me wonder how their traumatic experiences and brush with fame may have impacted them.
The most devastating part of the story, however, beyond the fatalities from the crash, was the fate of the tribesmen. Firearms and technology were foisted upon them for their hospitality, damage was inadvertently done to their homes and animals. These poor people didn't even know what hit them. Those that died in the crash were not the only victims.
This is definitely a must-read for anyone that enjoys reading about adventures too strange to be fiction.
A few words about the audio production: The author actually narrates this audiobook and he did a great job. Would an actor have done a better job with all the action and adventure? Maybe, but you could also tell that Zuckoff is passionate about his topic, plus his voice is very personable.
Listening length: 8 hours and 32 minutes (432 pages)
4 out of 5 stars