Thoughts on Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart

I always wait impatiently for my friend Beth Kephart‘s books. I’m lucky they appear on the shelves often. I’m never disappointed when I crack open their spines.  I read her latest, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent, quickly and quietly because I don’t like fits and chokes and starts when I read a Kephart book. I prefer to chug it in its entirety. Then sit happy and full.

That is what I love, love, love about this book.  The fullness and richness of this writhing adventure. Each sentence swells with the endurance of characters that are, in many ways, running on empty, past empty, but with their hearts bursting full at their worn seams.

Fourteen year old William Quinn is a finder and fixer despite a life of tremendous loss (his father in jail, his brother, Francis, murdered, his mother slowly disappearing from a broken heart.) His best friend, Career, still stomps across the dust with a ripped sack jacket and a ‘too-big-for-him’ vest while he doggedly pursues even bigger dreams.  His mother, struggling every day to cope, still manages to rise from bed and stitch that sleeve. And I haven’t even got into blowzy Pearl and her boisterous kindness or the amazing, persistent, stubborn Molly whose yellow bow, against all odds, still clings to her hair. Even the empty promise of the magical sarsaparilla (it’s just root beer) doesn’t stop them (or me) from believing, hoping, knowing, that their strength is resolute.

I’m not smart enough to really know the time period (1871) or the place (Bush Hill, Philadelphia) but I’m lucky Beth fills the pages with the sound and spirit of the time so I can come to understand it (a most gorgeous review that goes into that here.) And, in collaboration with her husband, artist William Sulit, the beautiful illustrations reveal the scratch and charcoal and steam of those words.  

This winter, in freezing cold, I did visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, where parts of the novel take place. As a symbol of atonement and redemption, the former prison (known as Cherry Hill) seems to stand at the center of the book, and the characters make their amazing rescues and deliverances around its imposing walls.

I’d pull every sentence from the book if I could, such is the care Beth puts into each one. But I’ll just excerpt one of my favorite moments:

William leans against the streetlamp, corner of Broad and Pennsylvania, the light an apron of yellow around his old, broke boots. Two brown moths lap at his head, fuzzy creatures with gigantic wings that make him think of the night he and Francis and Ma sat within the spectacle of the Phasmatrope. She’d caught her breath as soon as the first projected waltz had begun, and by the time the tumblers started galvanizing and leaping across the screen, Ma was pulled to the edge of her seat, her sons on either side each holding one hand. Ma’s fingers were white from the laundry bleach. Her nails were short and square. It was her gold ring that shone like a star that night, an infinity band. William remembers remembering Pa and what Pa’d been through and what he’d done and lost, and how the bearing of him had changed, but never his outright love for Ma.  

I love this moment for the wide-eyed, knowing, perhaps misunderstood kindness that brought them to the Phasmatrope, William’s memory of it, and the enduring love behind it, always at the center of Beth Kephart’s beautiful books. If I must wait for the next one at least I always, always, wait happy and full.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart

  1. You, my dear, are extremely capable of having your own book blogging site. I love the way you write about books that spoke to you. Thank you for this suggestion. I've never read any of Beth's books. I'll have to check them out.

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  2. I absolutely loved Small Damages, for many of the reasons you talk about here — the vividness and richness of the setting, the perfection of the writing, the way the characters sneak into your heart and stay there. Now I have to read this book too.

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