A work of narrative nonfiction centering on the unsolved disappearance of an American backpacker in India—one of at least two dozen tourists who have met a similar fate in the remote and storied Parvati Valley.
In Harley Rustad’s fascinating new book, Lost in the Valley of Death—arriving just as we’ve climbed the highest perches of our own cuckoo isolation—the portrait that emerges of Shetler as open and free to the world, blown over it like a fresh wind, is compelling indeed. In prose that moves like a clear river, Rustad presents Shetler as that peculiar breed of American peregrinator pushing to the farthest limit, a fearless doer who mixes raw earnestness with extreme ambition to end up in a mess of bad trouble. This is a genre of outdoor story we’ve become accustomed to, as well: the disappeared searcher. But one of the book’s initial achievements is that Rustad reclaims Shetler from that whoa-brah spirituality ... By patient accumulation of anecdote and detail, Rustad evolves Shetler’s story into something much more human, and humanly tragic, into a layered inquisition and a reportorial force that pushes Shetler beyond his white-lib entitlement into a technicolor mystery ... there’s the slightest misstep when Rustad brings his own memories into the story, then seems to think better of it. This is easy to forgive because he’s such a sure-handed raconteur and we can’t look away from Shetler ... Rustad has done what the best storytellers do: tried to track the story to its last twig and then stepped aside.
ustad proves himself here to be a masterful storyteller, unfolding character, plot, suspense, pathos, bathos and half a dozen other Greek nouns so meticulously that you’re not going to want to put this book down ... Though he had some extraordinary abilities and drives, as most people do, Shetler’s depth was the kind we all have, the profundity every human life creates and, in putting so much work into documenting it, Rustad’s done us the favour of celebrating our complex muddles of good and bad and stupid and smart ... His notes on sources at the end of the book run to 10 pages and not one of them is superfluous. It’s like he’s held up a crystal dodecahedron for us to see how many ways Shetler could be reflected in the eyes of others ... like any good book, and this is a very good book, it provides no real answers, no closure, no meaning. It’s just life, as seen through the lens of one of its sadder stories.
Had we been given this revelatory information at its actual moment in the chronological narrative, Stetler’s story would still have been compelling, but for a different, more profound reason...As the story stands, the reader can only feel somewhat shorted, denied the opportunity to participate more fully with Stetler in his anguished search ... Nevertheless, this objection does not detract from the scrupulously thorough process Rustad has followed in retracing the steps of Stetler’s path and arranging them in a powerful narrative ... a disturbing book that leaves you with a sense of wonder and a sense of unease. It’s a book that is not easy to put down.