cover image The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

Stephen O’Shea. Norton, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-393-24685-8

In the summer of 2014, popular historian O’Shea (The Friar of Carcassonne) traversed six of Europe’s seven alpine countries (France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia; he missed Liechtenstein), aiming to share stories grounded in the cleavages of human geography that have long marked the region. The travelogue is chock-full of colorful facts, such as that “going to Switzerland” is “European shorthand for seeking assisted suicide” and that a Chinese mining magnate created a “clone” of the Austrian village of Hallstatt in China, which led to an explosion of Chinese tourism in the original town. O’Shea is at his best when describing the architectural marvels of the places he visits, its literary trivia (for example, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1816 in a French hamlet near Mont Blanc during a period of inclement weather she endured with her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron), and such folkways as yodeling. Unfortunately, O’Shea’s approach to elucidating regional history can be rather too cursory, and his prose style aspires to the scale and grandeur of the Alps without reaching such heights. O’Shea comes across as a charming, ever-curious, and knowledgeable raconteur, but the book never seems sure of its purpose and suffers as a result. Maps. (Mar.)

This review has been corrected to remove an extraneous word.