SASSAFRAS by Jack Matthews
Kirkus Star


Email this review


With the same stylistic control on display in his recent story collections, Matthews sounds both the blat of humanity's beastliness and the trills of its occasional sweet harmonies--through the picaresque, calamitous adventures of Thaddeus Burke (b. 1825). Thad is rich in ""sassafras""--lust for life. He's also ""Strong in Hope."" Furthermore, as an up-and-coming phrenologist, Thad knows just where Hope is located (""beside the coronal sutures on both sides of the head""), important information for a lad whose mother was murdered and whose father went mad. After that dreadful childhood, Thad went on to apprenticeship with an oratorical printer, who had him memorize Latin words and Shakespeare's sonnets; he trained with an eminent phrenologist who went ingloriously bonkers; then, in Baltimore, he fell cranium-over-heels in love with Lily de Wilde, a genteel soprano who turned out to be known locally as ""Lay-Me-Again-Lily."" So now Thad is traveling Westward, meeting rival phrenologist Stillingfleet in Illinois--as both are about to star in a tar-and-feathers party. In the episodes that follow, Stillingfleet will reappear often, snitching Thad's wagon and trying to kill him--while Thad specializes in escapes from duels and executions. And other, less evil acquaintances abound: Henry Buck, Osage companion and elusive savior, who walks to suicide backwards into rivers; the giant William Bone, life's cruel joke, for whom death is a liberation (alas, he also wants to ""liberate"" Thad); Half Face, a bandit who delays Thad's execution so that Thad can write down the cream of his mighty cussing vocabulary; a doomed and lovely Indian maid on a sacred mission; cantankerous Lionel Littlejohn, a lone black man heading north; and the reappearing Lily, freelancing in the Lost Child Tavern, who tends Thad through his blindness. Finally, then, from the wilds to the hamlet of Shoestring and Fort Riley, Thad learns about revenge, loyalty, grief, cruelty, love. . . and, once unblinded, knows that ""there are many ways to truth and every step forward has a certain glory."" An irresistible tale in the Twain tradition--funny, wise, and wide as the Missouri in compassionate sass.

Pub Date: Dec. 9th, 1983
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin