Sunday, January 9, 2011

1986: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

Next up:  Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan.  I remember seeing this book everywhere when I was a kid, but for some reason I never read it.  (Or maybe I did, and totally forgot; it’s very possible!)  So, now is the time.  It’s a slim book and quick read, and I ended up reading it twice—so much is told in so few words that I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any details. 

This book opens with a young girl, Anna Witting, telling her younger brother Caleb the story of his birth.  She always ends the story early, not wanting to discuss how their mother died the next day.  They talk about their mother this time anyway, with Caleb fixating on their mother’s singing and wondering why their father, Jacob, doesn’t sing anymore.  When he brings this up with Jacob, the man responds by saying he has put an ad in the paper for a wife and mother to come join the family on their farm, and has received an answer from a woman named Sarah in Maine.  Sarah and the Witting family decide to give each other a one-month trial.  Sarah experiences everyday life and a few adventures with the Wittings, but she also misses her family and the sea.  Caleb and Anna begin to worry: at the end of the month, will Sarah decide to leave?

A gang plow with horses.
My copy of this book is only 67 pages long.  That, I think, is the most excellent thing about the story; MacLachlan tells so much in so few words.  It’s a beautiful story full of emotional struggles, interesting characters, historical details, and events big and small.  This book seems best suited for ages 6 up to 8 or so, those kids who are new to reading but already comfortable with Frog and Toad and Amelia Bedelia.  MacLachlan’s language is simple to read, but deftly used, and really respects the intelligence of child readers.  She doesn’t spell out what the characters are thinking and feeling but provides lots of clues in facial expressions, dialogue, tone of voice, and actions, encouraging young readers to make their own inferences. 

Eddie Butter, farm boy, holds a lamb.
The characters are fascinating, especially Sarah.  She’s a very childlike character, more so than the actual children are.  They find it odd when she wants to swim in the cow pond, wears overalls instead of a dress, or loves the farm animals—in one scene a neighbor gives Sarah three chickens “for eating,” but Sarah immediately names them and turns them into pets.  Her sense of wonder, her sometimes odd priorities, and her stubborn insistence on learning to do things herself contrast sharply with the staid, sensible Anna and Caleb, who seem to parent her as much as she parents them.  The only times they experience strong emotions are when they miss their mother or fear that Sarah will decide to return to Maine.  Sarah, with all her wonder and emotion and especially her singing, has brought life and color and music back to their farm, and they recognize that they need her there.

Sheep herder. Natrona County, Wyoming.
Another great quality of this book is its historical information.  Sarah, Plain and Tall would be a great story for kids who are learning about farming, pioneers, and homesteaders.  The Witting is family is fairly well established, with cultivated land, livestock, and buildings, but like any other farmer they are still at the mercy of the land and weather.  Their way of life is revealed throughout the book in concisely worded detail; readers will learn about the chores that children like Caleb and Anna had to do, the modes of transportation available to them, their methods of long-distance communication, and the consequences of bad weather.  They will learn a little about the clothing, landscape, food, and pastimes of children on the farm, as well as a little about life on the Maine coast.  Sarah often talks to Anna and Caleb about her childhood, her brother’s fishing boat, the local wildlife, the types of shells and flowers she grew up with, the colors of the sea, and her own childhood pastimes.  This sounds like a lot of detail for just 67 pages, but MacLachlan weaves it into the narrative effortlessly.

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm.
In looking over the Newbery criteria, I see that I’ve already touched on all of it.  The presentation of information and appropriateness of style are both distinguished, with expert storytelling, economy of words, and language well-suited for young readers.  The plot, characters, and setting are again very well done; all are richly developed and full of detail.  As for the interpretation of the theme or concept, this story’s theme of finding happiness in life is heartfelt but not heavy-handed.  All of the characters in this story must deal with loneliness and with missing their loved ones, and they all learn how to move forward and create new, fulfilling relationships.  This book really deserves its gold medal, and I suspect that as I continue to read its fellow medalists, I’ll find that it’s not just the most distinguished contribution to children’s literature in 1986, but is among the most distinguished of the books that have won the Newbery Medal.

Who should give this book a try?
People who are interested in life on a farm, especially in the late 1800s/early 1900s.  People who love farm animals.  People who love cats and dogs.  People who may be struggling with missing their loved one(s).  People who have moved and miss their former home.  People who love to draw.  People who love plants and flowers.  People who love sliding down sand dunes or haystacks.  People who love sea shells.  People who love to sing.  People who are interested in weather and storms.  People who love the ocean.  People who love the prairie.  People who love adventurous, interesting, colorful characters.  People who love to see quiet and sensible characters come out of their shells.

Ranch mailbox near Farson, Wyoming.
Important Thing #1:  This story provides a tantalizing glimpse into farm life out west for earlier Americans.  I wanted to be even more immersed in this lifestyle, so I also gave Newbery Honor book Hattie Big Sky a try.  It’s a great book and is just bursting with information on homesteading.  See my next post for more!

Important Thing #2:  The photos adorning this post come from the New York Public Library Digital Gallery, the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Catalogue, and Shorpy, a website for historic photos.  These are excellent resources for old photographs, and I ended up spending a lot more time searching through these sites than I had intended because there’s just so much to see.


  1. This is on our list as well. Sounds like a beautiful story. I love the way you've incorporated the gorgeous old photos.

  2. Thanks, Kristen! It was really a lot of fun finding these photos. I think you'll enjoy this book when you get to it!

  3. For some reason, I never got around to reading this when I was younger either. I would love to see what my 8-year-old son thinks of it--he does love adventurous characters.

    Love the idea of your blog, by the way, and your detailed posts!

  4. Thanks, LitLass! I'm enjoying your blog too! I wonder how we missed out on this book earlier?

    Sarah is definitely an adventurous character. If he likes her, then in a couple years he might like Heart of a Samurai. The main character, Manjiro, is very adventurous, and like this book, there's a theme of traveling the world but missing home. It's really good, I'll review it here soon!