The Dog Doesn’t Die

Book reviews & random thoughts

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Lost in Shangri-La, by Mitchell Zuckoff

In the thick of war, there are a few legitimate war stories that nonetheless have a People magazine-ish aspect to them. Mitchell Zuckoff’s well-told tale of survival after a WWII plane crash in the New Guinea rainforest is one of them, almost entirely because one of the few survivors was a beautiful young woman member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC). To make it even more interesting, while the area was referred to as “Shangri-La,” it was, in fact, populated by a fractious, constantly warring population of previously uncontacted native peoples who sometimes engaged in cannibalism.

Although this is a fascinating story that almost tells itself, I have to give Zuckoff a lot of credit – he clearly did tons of research, and yet the book does not read like a research project. Well-written, with quotes from many different sources – including some of the native people who interacted with the survivors – Lost in Shangri-La is a fascinating account of an incredible adventure.

After a large valley was discovered in central New Guinea, U.S. Army personnel stationed in Hollandia (now Jayapura) New Guinea took short recreational flights to view the valley and glimpse the Dani tribal people who populated it. There were any number of hazards involved in these joyrides, however. The valley was at altitude, and it was surrounded by steep mountain ranges in such a way that the pilots had to know what they were doing and give their full attention to the journey. For some reason, that didn’t happen the day that the gorgeous Margaret Hastings, Sgt. Kenneth Decker, Lt. John McCollom, 19 other passengers, and 2 crew members cruised over the valley. Instead, the aircraft crashed. McCollom crawled out of the wreckage largely unscathed, although his identical twin Robert, sitting in another part of the plane, did not. Hastings and Decker made it out on their own despite injuries. Three others who survived the initial disaster perished soon thereafter.

John McCollom helped Decker, suffering from a head injury and burns, and Hastings, with painful burns on her legs, struggle to a clearing where they would be visible to searchers flying overhead. Just as they were spotted, they also encountered some of the warlike Dani tribesmen. How they managed this encounter is one of the more interesting parts of the book. Let’s just say they survived. But with gangrene setting in, Hastings feared losing her legs, and Decker’s life was endangered. An unhappily idle collection of Filippino-American paratroopers, led by a young and ambitious C. Earl Walter, Jr., who’d spent much of his childhood in the Philippines, was given the opportunity to participate in the rescue.

Walter sent down medics “Doc” Bulatao and “Rammy” Ramirez to help with the survivors’ immediate needs. Although McCollom and Walter are largely the heroes of this story, Bulatao and Ramirez really were the people who kept it from being even more of a tragedy. Without them, it was entirely possible that McCollom would have been the only long-term survivor. Their lack of recognition frustrated Walter, and Zuckoff did a good job of portraying their extremely important role in the rescue.

Still, there was no clear way to get them out due to the lack of roads, the difficulties with helicopters at altitude, and other issues. Under orders to “think of something” while others “thought of something,” Walter and another 8 Filipino-American paratroopers leapt into the jungle to help stabilize the situation with the survivors, ensure their safety, and prepare a just-in-case landing strip for an aircraft. Decker and Hastings were now mobile but nowhere near capable of the estimated 150-mile trek out of the valley. Interactions with the Dani became more difficult over time, and when a means of evacuation – by glider – was decided upon, the Hollandia headquarters crew decided to spend several days testing it. In the mean time, Alexander Cann, a journalist and professional character, decided to best his fellow reporters and parachuted down to join the small group.

Eventually, there was a rescue. How well it went is something for you to read about. I can’t imagine anyone not liking this book, so I’m going to give it my strongest recommendation.

There really weren’t any animal characters to speak of. Pigs played a special role in Dani society – they were valued as quasi-pets, as sources of wealth, and as meat – but that’s about it. So there’s nothing in particular to discuss in that regard.



September 18, 2011 Posted by | beach book, Book Reviews, historical fiction, nonfiction, travel, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Fugitive Pieces, by Anne Michaels

This thoughtful book lives up to its tantalizing opening, in which a desperate Jewish child seeks help from a Greek geologist working at the archaeological site in Buskupin, Poland at the beginning of World War II. Thus begins the long journey of Jakob Beer, smuggled to Greece and hidden from the Nazis by Athos Roussos. Athos is more than just a man with a conscience, however — he is also a respected academic, so when Greece plunges into political turmoil at the end of the war, Athos secures a professorship in Toronto and takes Jakob along. At this point, 13-year-old Jakob realizes that he loves Athos, who has been his only family for almost 6 years. But Jakob remains haunted by what happened to his family while he hid, as taught by his mother, behind a wall as the Nazis invaded his home. He knows his father is dead and believes his mother is, as well. But what about his 15-year-old sister, Bella? The uncertainty about Bella haunts him for the rest of his life and is a prominent theme in Anne Michaels’ touching story.

The only difficulty I had with this book was one of style. Michaels is a poet, and while I appreciate beautiful writing, there were a few passages that struck me as a bit overdone. But this is a quibble. Jakob and Athos stayed on my mind for days after I finished the book, and I thought Michaels’ characterizations were exquisite. I strongly recommend this book.

As for animals, Jakob is very aware of them while he hides in the woods, as he visits the beach with Athos for a post-war remembrance, as the two seek shelter from a thunderstorm. Not much else happens that would make an impact on animal lovers, so I am declaring this book SAFE for people who worry about what happens to animal characters.

April 3, 2010 Posted by | Book Reviews, historical fiction | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of A Thread of Grace, by Mary Doria Russell

What I didn’t realize when I read Mary Doria Russell’s lovely book, Dreamers of the Day, is that she has a reputation for writing much darker fiction, and that she is, in fact, the author of two bestselling science fiction classics, one of which I will review in the near future. A Thread of Grace is not science fiction, it is historical fiction, and you will find in various places online a lot of whining from sci-fi fans who demand that Russell stick with that genre. On the other hand, I love that she crosses genres, and I think she’s a brilliant writer, period. A Thread of Grace is dramatic, thought-provoking, well-written, and powerful.

It is the story of a collection of people who found themselves in Italy’s Piedmont region during late 1943 through early 1945. These people include Jewish refugees, Italian Jews, priests, nuns, Italian fascists, Resistance fighters, military personnel of every possible stripe, and those who would just like to be left alone but are compelled to act because that’s what war does. Russell’s characters range from infants to the stooped elderly, and there are so many of them that I cringed when I saw the character list at the front of the book. But Russell gives all of these characters individual voices, personalities, and roles, so that they all seem essential to the story. In fact, I think this might be her real strength — telling a “ripping yarn” with a large cast of vivid characters.

And what about plot? It can be summed up in one word: survival. Yet as Italy’s involvement in WWII wound down, survival became complex to the point of near impossibility. People were constantly on the move, and Russell’s most vivid character, Renzo Leoni, took on multiple personas just to keep going. Young teenager Claudette Blum progresses from skipping through the streets to carrying a gun. There is even a 9-year-old who has a part in the resistance. And, as one would expect from a story about this particular time and place, death is everywhere.

I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It is not light reading by any definition, but it also doesn’t feel as unremittingly depressing as some other books with the same setting. Yes, it’s dark, but it’s also suspenseful and beautiful, with occasional light moments. The pacing is something to be aware of — it’s very fast, and you will want to read this book over a period of days, not weeks.

As for animals, I always feel it’s odd to mention that when reviewing a book that has a great deal of human death.  But the purpose of this blog is to screen books for animal lovers who don’t want to read about animal deaths or violence to animals. In that regard, the book is SAFE for animal lovers, although interestingly enough, the saddest animal note is when Russell mentions the death of a beloved dog in her author interview at the end of the book. Other than that, a pet canary is left behind as refugees flee, dogs serve their masters by barking and growling, a rat licks her fur, an unmilked cow bellows, and that’s about it.

One other thing: Russell includes maps. I love maps! One other plus for this book — you don’t need to read it with an atlas nearby.

December 17, 2009 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, historical fiction | , , , , , | 1 Comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Sisterhood of Spies, by Elizabeth McIntosh

Here’s a helpful hint: If you and your lover are at a foreign embassy trying to break into a vault, take your clothes off and work naked. That way, any guard who barges in on you will leave quickly without being able to see what you are really up to. Of course, there’s no guarantee of success, but it did work once, as Elizabeth McIntosh notes in her book, Sisterhood of Spies.

Although sometimes reading like a catalogue of who did what, McIntosh loaded this book about the Office of Strategic Services — predecessor to the CIA — with many intriguing anecdotes similar to the one above. Despite the unfortunate tendency of the men in charge to treat many of the highly educated and multi-lingual OSS women as if they were inherently incapable of doing the work given to less intelligent, less gifted men, a fair number of women worked as researchers, agents, station managers, and propagandists. Along with McIntosh herself were Marlene Dietrich and the seemingly unflappable Julia Child, then still Julia McWilliams. More lethal to the enemy was “the limping lady,” a one-legged agent who disguised herself as a French peasant while organizing air drops, training agents, and sending radio dispatches to London. A woman fluent in Czech developed a strategy that led to hundreds of Czech soldiers defecting to the Allies. And on and on, in an amazing chronicle of the contributions made by OSS women during the Second World War. This is definitely on my “recommend” list.

Animal lovers have little to worry about when reading this book. There is the occasional sedative slipped to a guard dog and numerous pets, and the Limping Lady actually milked cows and herded goats as part of her cover. Because the events of this book occurred during a war, there are also dead and hungy livestock noted. But the latter are fleeting, and this book is therefore SAFE for animal lovers.

February 14, 2009 Posted by | animals, Book Reviews, history | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Does the Dog Die? A Brief Review of Sarah’s Key, by Tatiana de Rosnay

This book was promoted as challenging, haunting, sad, intriguing, etc., with comparisons to Sophie’s Choice. Despite my skepticism at such high praise, I found it to be all of those things. The story begins in a Paris apartment in July 1942, as the French police, in an effort to please the Nazis, go beyond what was requested in rounding up Jews for deportation. As in all Holocaust novels, difficult decisions are made quickly, and sometimes those decisions turn out to be mistakes. In this case, the difficult decision that shapes the book is made by a child, 10-year-old Sarah. Decades later, American transplant Julia Jarmond researches the round-up and uncovers a link to Sarah, a link that she pursues despite interference from her odious French husband.


The book moves quickly, and it’s hard to write a review without giving away too much. I found some of the situations to be more plausible than others, but aside from one huge coincidence, there were no distractions. Some of the characters were well-drawn and other (like the loathesome husband) were too one-dimensional. But these are quibbles rather than substantive criticisms. The book held my interest from beginning to end, and I had a hard time putting it down. On that basis, I will recommend it.


As for animals, a few pets are mentioned, including a dog who barks out a couple of well-timed and essential warnings. None of these pets come to harm, making this book SAFE for animal lovers.

December 18, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews | , , , , , | 4 Comments