Imagine being on vacation and spending the time cycling through France. In The Valley of Heaven and Hell: Cycling in the Shadow of Marie-Antoinette by Susie Kelly, she introduces us to both the beauty and history of this European country just a bit smaller in scale than the state of Texas. Kelly writes a heartwarming and challenging story of her arrival into the art of cycling, keeping the story entertaining and mostly lighthearted. She keeps up an amazing dialogue along the path she and her husband have chosen which seem to parallel that traveled during the final days of Marie-Antoinette and her Husband King Louis XVI as they tried to make their escape during the French Revolution.
The book is littered with known facts in this final flight as well as many of the other venues of historical significance that happened in this small area that may have had a hand in the way the world has changed over the centuries. We feel the charm though the names such as Versailles, La Villette, the Tuileries and Montmedy. Just the enunciation of the words brings to mind the chic and trendy French countryside. Americans, too, have been involved in many of the miseries that seem to embody some of the history of the area by acting as allies during the wars. France is full of memorials and places of special significance throughout erected in the effort to memorialize those that gave their lives for others.
As Kelly and her husband Terry take their tour, she keeps us entertained with the different antics of the trip and pokes a great deal of fun at herself. She interjects bits of the history of the areas they encounter and her thoughts and feelings about these as well along her way.
What I didn’t expect was to feel the history, to have the faint ghostly presence of those long past come through the reading and descriptions. It is uncanny, and it is the feeling you have when visiting those areas were many have died and been laid to rest. I could feel the sadness and fear of the Monarchs for their children and for each other. The beauty and the pain are laid out in such stark relief that it is difficult to not be caught up in the history. I found myself researching and following up on some of the information that she interjects throughout to get just a bit more background.
While the history is true, Kelly tackles it and makes it read like a horror story. It is hard to imagine the mindset and hysteria that creates such a magnitude of a mob scene as evidenced, as these two Royals were captured and imprisoned. And even as the pain unfolds, there is a kind of peace, that seems to come with the beauty that seems to remake itself.
If you enjoy history and are looking for a look into both the past and present than look no further. This would make an exceptional book for a book club or reading group. It would also be a wonderful addition to your library.