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By Peter Troy (Doubleday, 388 pages, $27)

I loved Mr. Rogan, my high school history teacher. But reading Peter Troy's first novel, I couldn't help but think how wonderful it would have been to sit in Troy's classroom instead. Troy, a former New York high school history teacher, quit his job to live off his 401(k) and stitch this outstanding historical tapestry. Set 150 years ago, his book braids the story of a starving Irish lad who emigrates to New York and becomes a Civil War soldier and photographer with twin slave narratives and the tale of a well-to-do Spanish émigré who becomes an abolitionist nurse.

The book was so good, I found myself e-mailing Troy to thank him. In his reply, he shared an essay ( in which he compares the leap he took -- quitting teaching to write -- to his four characters' uppity natures.

"They don't know their own place, or even knowing it, and being reminded of it, they choose to go beyond what is expected of them," Troy says. "I didn't realize at the time that my characters were a product of my own audacity. But it is obvious to me now."

His e-mail included this lament: "As a former history teacher, I have to say that the history we hand down from generation to generation lacks the connection to REAL people, leaving the students with only the dryness of facts and dates and the distance of 'great' people's stories to formulate their understanding of the past."

"May the Road" goes so much deeper than that, which is why it's my favorite book of 2012 -- so far, at least.

CURT BROWN, Staff writer


By Gregory Spatz (Bellevue Literary Press, 224 pages, $14.95)

John Franklin is not related to Sir John Franklin, the British explorer whose legendary search for a sailing route through the Northwest Passage ended with the crew disappearing without a trace. Again and again, he tells this to his son, Thomas, but Thomas believes otherwise. Why else would he develop an obsession with the tragedy, to the point of trying to re-create in himself the dire circumstances of scurvy that a crewman must have faced?

Trouble is, Thomas is in high school, where strange behavior is never rewarded. Spatz tells a story of Franklin's dissolving marriage with effective understatement. The abandonment that Thomas feels is revealed through his fantasy re-creation of the icebound sailors' last days. The effect never overreaches. The resulting mix of well-researched history and contemporary fiction makes for a fine, sad read.

KIM ODE, staff writer