Picks and Pans Review: Sassafras

updated 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/19/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Jack Matthews

Set in the 1840s, this engaging novel is narrated by a young man in the Kansas Territory who is nicknamed Sassafras because he's smart and quick, a prankster. Sent West after the death of his mother, he becomes a traveling phrenologist, lecturing and "reading" bumps on heads, and takes up with a morose Osage Indian, an escaped slave and a Comanche boy who turns out to be a beautiful maiden. The heavily plotted yarn is also laced with mean drunkards, giant villains and a shady lady with a fondness for the hero. The violence is almost constant, yet it's not oppressive. This remains a chatty, genial look back at a time when people were supposed to have been innocent. "I do halfway remember going on for a considerable time about the role of coincidence in my life," writes the hero near the end, but this is the kind of novel that thrives on coincidence—the more preposterous, the better. (Houghton Mifflin, $14.95)

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