Book Review: Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, by Beth Kephart

Dr. Radway's Sarsaparilla ResolventDr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, by Beth Kephart
illustrated by William Sulit
New City Community Press
190 pages

If  her fans were asked to name her most memorable books, perhaps Beth Kephart’s Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent wouldn’t be among the first to come to mind. That’s because this is what I consider to be a quiet book. One similar in nature to its main character William (who we first met in Beth Kephart’s Dangerous Neighbors) and one certainly akin to its humble author.

William, age 14, has a knack for finding lost things, particularly animals gone astray. It’s a talent that eventually enables him to make a small windfall. But it doesn’t overcome for the tragedies that his family has suffered  – his brother murdered, his father imprisoned – and the early lessons learned that sometimes what’s lost can’t always be found and what’s broken can’t always be easily repaired. (“Everything that’s broken is William Quinn’s to fix.” pg. 4)

This historical fiction novel puts the reader back in 1870s Philadelphia, a time when people believed in the power of potions to cure their ails. (The sarsaparilla resolvent, in this case, is an elixir, hope in a bottle.) It was a time when people believed in giving young people chances as apprentices and took them under their wings with helpful advice about how things – machinery, the world – worked. 

In this exceptionally-researched novel targeted toward the tween/young adult audience, Beth Kephart captures not only the sights and sounds of Philadelphia during this industrial age, but also the language of the time. One of her many talents as a writer is her consistent ability – in every book she writes – to put her reader in the scene alongside her characters. (That is also why it isn’t necessary to have a familiarity with Philadelphia when reading a Beth Kephart book, but is also the same reason that doing so is an absolute treat for this Philadelphia native.) In Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, William Sulit’s illustrations add to that experience nicely while lending the book an appropriately somber tone. 

History comes alive in this book. As do reminders about the things – family, home, friendship, truth – that matter most in life. 


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6 thoughts on “Book Review: Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, by Beth Kephart

    1. Melissa Firman Post author

      Victoria, thanks! Pittsburgh hosted a public art event last September called “Knit the Bridge.” It was a “yarn-bombing” event where people volunteered to knit or crochet blankets that would then be used to cover the entire Andy Warhol Bridge here in the city. This bridge has footpaths on either side, so when the panels were completed and hung, you could walk across the bridge and admire the knitted works. I happened to do just that one morning at 10:30 when a woman and her friend were doing the same; they snapped this of me at just the right moment when there wasn’t any traffic. After a month, the panels were taken down and laundered and distributed to the homeless in Pittsburgh. That was a picture-perfect weather day during a tough emotional time – I was in the midst of 15 months of unemployment (but, unbeknownst to me, nearing the end, thankfully) – and you’re right, the colors just made me happy when I needed a pick-me-up.

  1. Victoria Marie Lees

    I’m starting to read some of Beth’s books and love them. Now to go out and this one. Thanks, Melissa, for this wonderful review of Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent. ~Victoria Marie Lees

  2. Beth Kephart

    Melissa! So very kind of you to read this, to make room for it in your life and on your blog. I will always love William and his city. I know you share that with me. Thank you so much for this.

  3. Serena

    I agree, this was a quiet but powerful novel. Have you read Flow about the schuylkill river? That was also quiet and powerful…but nonfiction. I just read Going Over, her latest, and I’m still thinking about Berlin and her characters.

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