The continued chronicle of a young American teenager living in Europe during the mid 1960’s.
I was a reader in transition when I landed in Paris. As a young middle school student, I had been introduced to American authors like O’Henry, Hawthorne, Mark Twain and Esther Forbes. My library card was well-worn from weekly forays into the fictional world of the Young Adult section. When we moved to Paris, there was no longer a willing librarian to recommend new authors or the proper reading material for a young girl. I was on my own, reading newspapers, American magazines and anything I could find written in English. (My French never did allow me to visit the “bibliotheque.”) During that first summer, I was limited to the books my father brought home from the office, the books circulating among the wives of his colleagues. Since cereal boxes were boring and I needed something more than solitaire to entertain me, I shared the books with my parents. I found more than entertainment, I discovered fascinating history, romance, intrigue and a little known genre called historical fiction. I was addicted.
A recent reference to the Bernadotte family reminded me of those first lonely months in Paris and the book that introduced me to European history. The book, Desiree by Annemarie Selinko, is the story of a young woman in love with Napolean, her adventures in Paris and her later transformation to become Queen of Sweden. Desiree became Queen of Sweden when her husband, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte, became King Charles XIV John. They founded the Bernadotte dynasty that produced the modern love story of Prince Bertil and Princess Lilian. A love story for the 21st century. No wonder I was so intrigued. Thirteen years old, a French love story that was “real” for the reader. I was hooked.
The second book that influenced my present and my future was Is Paris Burning? by Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre. Real history set in the city where I lived. The very buildings I walked past in my Sunday visits to Paris were described in the book, brought to life in details by historical authors. The pockmarks I saw, the landmarks I visited were each described in detail from the days of the Nazi occupation. I lived in the history of the city, ready for the bursts of bombs over Paris, the American troops riding in tanks to liberate the French and the various intertwining histories of the people I met walking along the Seine. How exciting to pass under the very bridge where the Resistance officers traded secrets with the Allies. The book was so descriptive of the moments leading to the liberation, I almost expected to meet Charles De Gaulle en route to a meeting when I turned the corner in the 5th Arrondissement. Living amidst the historical sites, I learned that history and the present intersect on every street corner.
I wasn’t lonely anymore. I was in the middle of history, meeting with Resistance officers, reading telegrams from Berlin. I was living in Paris but each page of the book placed me in the 1940’s rather than the turbulent 1960’s of my present. I had found a new path, a new way to look into the past and find the present. While my friends at home in the States were talking of “Grotto dances” and “The Rock” I was living amidst the pages of a book, living the history of the ancient city, verifying facts and visiting the buildings with their war plaques and pockmarked facades.
My view of history was forever changed by the realism of my present connected with the living proof of the past. These two book made history come alive, transported me to an age unknown previously and introduced me to a living history I would pursue throughout my life. The authors wrote, described, and set a scene so real that I was allowed to live among the pages of history, right before my teenaged eyes. A history so real that years later, I wondered if I had lived the dream of Desiree, young, in Paris and eager to experience the excitement of a future filled with mystery and romance.
I learned that Paris was not burning nor did young Desiree marry Napoleon but in those months before I started high school, I learned that history is made in each day we live and can be found within the pages of a book. Two books can change a life.