Montreal-based author Mary Soderstrom has set herself a giant task in Road Through Time: The Story of Humanity on the Move – one that begins with the first anatomically modern humans leaving Africa 50,000 to 80,000 years ago and ends on a bus zigzagging its way through today’s South America. It’s no wonder time moves at a frenzied pace and roads unfurl across continents over the course of the volume’s scant pages (excluding notes and bibliography). Such ambition against such brevity makes for an informative, wide-reaching read, but also one in which depth and narrative continuity take a backseat.
The concept, however, is striking and draws on an affinity to topography that Soderstrom has displayed in fiction (Desire Lines: Stories of Love and Geography) and non-fiction (Green City: People, Nature and Urban Life). From our first ancestors onward, humans have shaped and been shaped by the roads they have carved, stumbled upon, and, frequently, destroyed. At its most engaging, Road Through Time provides a lucidly written overview of this particular march through the lens of time: the discovery of horses as transport, the invention of the wheel, the establishment of early trade routes, and the expansion of empires through war. Soderstrom’s narrative picks up steam, literally, as she takes us through the development of trains in the 19th century and automobiles in the 20th.
Soderstrom also points out that environmental degradation has accompanied the development of modern humans. The establishment of such ancient cities as Babylon and Luxor meant a massive deforestation project over thousands of years to secure much-
coveted wood. And we’re not the first generation to wipe out entire species or have a thing for bling: “sparkly objects” became one of the first non-essential items in history “prized enough to be transported long distances.”
Much of this material is fascinating, and comes as news (at least to me). Paradoxically, this novelty makes Road Through Time read more like a collection of textbook facts and figures or an educational documentary than a coherent narrative. I suspect that Soderstrom knew that going in, which is why Road Through Time is bookended by two personal journeys to up its storytelling quotient. The first sees the author as a child travelling from southern California to the northwest corners of the U.S. on a bus with her mother and sister. The second, as an older woman, takes her along the new Transoceanic Highway that cuts through swaths of South America.
While the childhood memories seem to have benefited from an overdose of hindsight, the more recent trip shows Soderstrom’s wit and warmth as a storyteller, traveller, and observer of humanity. Her writing here draws on the exuberance of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road while hinting at Cormac McCarthy’s darker undercurrents in The Road – two books that cast long shadows on this one. Soderstrom transports us from the romance to the brutality of the road and leaves us wondering if there’s room (or time) for still more marches across this aching planet.