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