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Book Review

The Seven Wonders of Sassafras Springs by Betty G. Birney has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

It’s 1923. Eleven-year-old Eben McAllister lives with his Pa and Aunt Pretty in the small town of Sassafras Springs, Missouri. It seems like the most uninteresting place in the world to the boy as he sits on the porch reading a book about the Seven Wonders of the World. Pa challenges Eben to find the wonders in his own town. He even offers the boy a train ticket to visit relatives in Colorado if Eben can find seven man-made wonders in seven days.

As Eben visits different people in his community, he begins to learn interesting, little-known stories about their lives and town history. News of Eben’s quest travels quickly, and everyone seems to want to share their treasures with him. He discovers, however, that some of the most interesting “treasures” aren’t owned by the wealthy and are not valuable in and of themselves.

The Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Prichard, shows Eben her old doll with a shrunken apple head. She tells him how she almost died as a child, and how the doll saved her by briefly coming to life and speaking to her. A man named Cully, known for being a little crazy, relays how he saved a rainmaker who was floating down the river clutching an old bookshelf. The bookshelf, which allowed the rainmaker to live, now holds up Cully’s meager roof. Eben writes these wonders down and continues to search.

A girl named Rae Ellen follows Eben around, wanting to share her “wonderful” with him. He avoids her as much as possible and continues to interview different adults in town. When he hears sounds coming from the church, he finds a farmer named Calvin playing “Amazing Grace” on a saw. Calvin says he taught himself to play after seeing a peddler play a saw. He shares his account of how his playing drove a destructive swarm of grasshoppers away and saved his family’s farm.

A girl from school named Violet invites Eben to see her family’s dining table. Years ago, the townspeople had seen a table in the graveyard and believed it was haunted. A woman named Rose-Ivy discovered a lonely widower had brought his table so he could be near his deceased wife at mealtimes. Rose-Ivy invited him to her house for dinner, and they eventually married. Eben learns they were Violet’s grandparents.

Eben records these interesting accounts. His friend Jeb comes along to help when he can. Eben is waylaid a few times by rainy weather, work on the farm and an outhouse prank played by another classmate named Coogie.

Eben finally listens to Rae Ellen’s story. She shows him a ship in a bottle and describes her Uncle Dutch’s voyage. The ship’s arrogant and unfeeling captain exclaimed that God wouldn’t dare sink his ship. Suddenly, the ship began to capsize. Rae Ellen’s uncle was thrown into the water and washed up on shore where he found the ship in a bottle. It was the very ship on which he had been sailing.

With the help of Jeb and Coogie, Eben continues to search for his remaining wonders. When the boys are caught in the mayor’s watermelon patch, Mayor Peevey drags Eben inside to tell his story. He talks about a boy named Buddy who was always playing pranks and causing trouble for the townsfolk. He tried to pull a prank on an old blind woman who was an amazing weaver. Even though Buddy rearranged all of her thread colors, she still wove a piece of cloth in which the word “Buddy” was written. She said the loom told her this was who was pulling the pranks.

The woman gave the fabric to Buddy. The mayor says the amazing part was that Buddy realized the error of his ways. He completely stopped playing pranks and decided to help others from then on. Buddy was the mayor’s childhood nickname.

A man known as Uncle Alf shares how he learned to carve from a traveling artist. The artist told him he needed to get to know the wood. Soon, Alf was able to carve amazing things. He shows Eben his miniature version of the entire city, complete with people. Some of them are doing things that only happened recently, and Uncle Alf suggests the wood must know things he doesn’t.

Pa gets a letter from the relatives in Colorado, who warn of an influenza epidemic there. They say Eben shouldn’t visit. Aunt Pretty surprises Eben by making arrangements for him to visit a relative in St. Louis instead. As Eben walks off to meet his train, the whole town comes out to see him off. He waves and promises to see them soon.

Christian Beliefs

Many of the townspeople are churchgoers. A number quote Scripture, mention Bible stories or talk about God in their everyday conversations. The Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Pritchard chides Eben when he says he made a bet with his dad. When she discovers it isn’t a gambling-type of bet, she still urges Eben to go home and study his Bible lesson rather than search for wonders.

Mrs. Pritchard warns Eben against the dangers of alcohol and urges him to resist temptation. She tells him how her mother prayed for her when she was little and very sick. She believed her doll talking to her was the miracle that saved her, though her father reminded her only God can make a miracle.

Several verses of “Amazing Grace” appear in the text when Calvin tells his story of playing the saw and driving off grasshoppers. Calvin ends his story by giving glory to God for the miracle. Eben notes the townsfolk don’t do any farming or gardening on the Sabbath. Aunt Pretty mentions a man who drinks a lot, and Eben adds that both the Baptists and Community Churches frowned on this. When Rae Ellen talks about her uncle’s sea captain, she reminds Eben it isn’t a good idea to dare the Lord.

Other Belief Systems

Some of the storytellers believe they have witnessed something astonishing, perhaps supernatural, but they don’t try to say it was because of God, or anyone/anything else for that matter. Some of the wonders are just considered amazing events, and the characters leave it at that.

Authority Roles

Aunt Pretty moved in to help when Ma died four years earlier. She cans peaches and knits and helps others in the community. Many consider her to be a wonder in her own right. Pa encourages Eben to love the life he has by urging the boy to find wonders in his own backyard. Townspeople eagerly share their interesting, miraculous and magical stories with the boy.


A few times, people say “Lord” at the beginning of a sentence, such as before “It was a hot day” or phrases along those lines. Jeb also tells Eben he will go somewhere “when h--- freezes over.”



Discussion Topics

Get free discussion questions for this book and others, at FocusOnTheFamily.com/discuss-books.

Additional Comments/Notes

Stealing: After a long day without food, Eben and his friends take a watermelon they suspect belongs to someone and isn’t just growing wild. Eben later admits to the mayor that he took the watermelon. The kind mayor tells him to chop wood for an hour to pay off the debt.

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Book reviews cover the content, themes and worldviews of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. The inclusion of a book's review does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

Episode Reviews



Readability Age Range

7 to 12



Betty G. Birney






Record Label



Aladdin Paperbacks, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing Division, a trademark of Simon & Schuster


On Video

Year Published



Historical, Drama


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