The Big Roads is not quite the "untold" story its subtitle promises…Still, Swift has added texture and nuance, as well as narrative economy, to a story containing volumes, and he makes for an ideal travel companionengaging, not too didactically chatty.
The New York Times
Swift (Where They Lay) begins his account of the building of America's "triumph of engineering" in the early 20th century, long before Eisenhower authorized the interstate highway system, and ends with a discussion of the future of today's aging, gas-hungry system. To form a coherent picture of the 47,000-mile undertaking, Swift weaves together the engineering feats, the routing and naming debates, the politics of funding, and the social costs of relocating citizens in the proposed freeway paths. A strong narrative follows the careers of the men who pioneered the system, primary among them Thomas Harris McDonald, who headed the Federal Bureau of Public Roads for 34 years, starting in 1919. While Swift admires the builders' accomplishments, he gives voice to highway critics, including social commentator Lewis Mumford. Swift's eye for anecdotes, some absurd in retrospect (for example the suggestion to blast through California's mountains with nuclear bombs), humanizes the enterprise. His writing is easygoing, and readers interested in urban planning as well as engineering will find a well-told story about a defining American feature. 8 pages of b&w photos. (June)
"Narrator Rob Shapiro brings a sort of surprised enthusiasm to his reading, utilizing a kind of gee-whiz tone that carries listeners along almost as nicely as today's roadways." -AudioFile
Swift (Where They Lay: Searching for America's Lost Soldiers) takes on the myth-plagued story of how America's interstate highway system came to be. Not so much a single story but a series of intertwined tales, the book busts many of the myths around the who, what, when, why, and how of today's superhighways. The stakeholders (users, industrialists, politicians, engineers) and their roles are surprisingly fluid over time. While a discussion of the highways as social and economic change agents occupies some of the book, it is not the primary focus. Swift also does not focus on engineering specifications, roadway structures, or road alignment battles across the nation, though he occasionally mentions those topics. This is a story about the characters who, over several decades, played a role in building the greatest public works project in history. Unfortunately, few pictures are available. VERDICT At a time when "we can't afford it" and "we don't need it" dominate public discourse, it's nice to look back to an era when visionary investment was still possible. For history and engineering buffs.—James A. Buczynski, Seneca Coll. of Applied Arts & Tech, Toronto
Quick: Who built the interstate highway system? If you answered President Eisenhower, then you're not even half-right, writes Swift (The Tangierman's Lament: and Other Tales of Virginia, 2007, etc.).
The National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, as it's formally known, was inaugurated during the Eisenhower years, of course, when the lessons of Hitler's autobahn system, able to bring troops here and evacuate citizens there, were fresh in mind for those now engaged in the Cold War. Yet, writes the author, "Franklin Roosevelt had a greater hand in its creation than Eisenhower," and even the ignoble Warren G. Harding and the hapless Herbert Hoover moved it along. But Swift reserves much of his account for men—almost always men—we've never heard of, most born in the days of horse and buggy or bicycle and enthralled by the possibilities of getting from one coast to the other in days if not weeks rather than months. One of his heroes, for instance, spent his early years contemplating how his native state of Iowa came to a halt during the thaw, when erstwhile dusty and then snow-covered roads turned into a thick mud the locals called "gumbo." And then, of course, there is legendary terraformer Robert Moses, well studied in the literature, to whom Swift imparts a huffy malevolence that a Caesar would have admired. A little of this goes a long way, though, and Swift too often bogs down in the minutiae of admittedly fascinating stuff—fascinating, that is, if you're a fan of the Wolfgang Schivelbusch school of how-things-came-to-be history, an acquired taste. The best parts of the book come when Swift injectsBlue Highwaysnotes into the enterprise and prefers the personal to the textbook-ready, as when he relates a cross-country trip with a preteen daughter and her friend that went better when they left the tranquil back roads and joined the flow: "On the old Lincoln, we'd tooled along. On U.S. 30, we toured. On I-80, folks were hauling ass."
Despite occasional stalls along the narrative path, the book is a road geek's treasure—and everyone who travels the highways ought to know these stories.