Because MacLachlan does not refer to specific locations or historical events, both the geographic and temporal settings of Sarah, Plain and Tall are difficult to pinpoint. The story is set somewhere on the great American prairie at a time when horses still served as the major mode of transportation, probably in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. MacLachlan, born in Wyoming on the high plains, finds great joy and inspiration in this open country. In Sarah, Plain and Tall, the prairie is a living presence whose weather and seasons constantly shape the lives of its inhabitants. An unseen but important additional setting is Sarah's beloved Atlantic Ocean, which she misses intensely after her relocation to the prairie. Its colors—green, blue, and gray—are essential elements of her world. When, at the end of the book, she drives to town and brings back green, blue, and gray colored pencils, Sarah fills a gap in both her life and the lives of the children. By bringing the colors of the sea to the prairie, Sarah serves as a personal bridge between the two environments, completing the family's household just as she has succeeded in completing the spectrum.
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In her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, MacLachlan asserts that complex levels of meaning exist "behind each word or between words" and that the unspoken words often create the most powerful aspects of a book. Indeed, the title character of Sarah, Plain and Tall is a quiet woman. She shares her time, her interests, and her love, but she keeps her thoughts to herself. Throughout the novel Anna must guess at Sarah's real intentions. When Sarah learns to repair the roof, she appears to want to stay. On the other hand, when she learns to drive a horse and buggy by herself, it seems that she might leave.
Sarah loved living near the great, wide-open sea, and she learns to love the similarly wide-open spaces of the prairie. The images of windswept fields and a prairie that "reached out and touched the places where the sky came down" complement Sarah's own character. Like the land of her new home, she has the capacity to speak with her silence and to make her actions more meaningful than words.
MacLachlan narrates the story from the point of view of Anna, a sensitive young girl who is mature enough to grasp some of the undercurrents of her family situation. Anna realizes that her father no longer sings because he is unhappy, and she notices from the start that Sarah misses her old home in Maine. By telling the story through the watchful eyes of Anna, MacLachlan stresses the importance of emotional ties among family members; Anna reacts to...
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MacLachlan, in her Newbery Medal acceptance speech, tells of her parents' influence on her and of their "belief that it is the daily grace and dignity with which we survive that children most need and wish to know about in books." Perhaps the most outstanding quality of Sarah, Plain and Tall is its ability to speak movingly and honestly about what it means to belong to a family and to survive from day to day as a family. Anna, Caleb, Papa, and Sarah all must work to make their lives together successful and meaningful. They make up their own games, tell their own stories, sing songs, and share in the work of the farm. The theme of sharing makes the book a positive reading experience. Its emphasis on ordinary people finding strength in ordinary relationships can only be encouraging to young readers, especially when the everyday difficulties of life often seem overwhelming. Although the family members in the book all fill traditional roles, the book is unlikely to strike anyone as sexist. Sarah's character refutes any such negative reading because in addition to her traditional role she insists on sharing in all the farm work, including those jobs usually assigned to men. Furthermore, Papa performs duties stereotypically associated with women without a hint of embarrassment or resentment. Anna, the narrator, is impressed by Sarah's insistence on helping with all the tasks necessary to make a farm succeed. By sharing the responsibilities for the farm and family,...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why is Anna uncomfortable around Caleb? Why does she associate him with her mother's death? Is it fair that she thinks of her mother's death when she thinks of Caleb?
2. Sarah is lonely, but she has turned down marriage proposals before answering Papa's advertisement. Why would she come to live with strangers on the prairie if there are men in Maine who want to marry her?
3. Why is it important that Sarah sings "Sumer Is Icumen In"?
4. Why is it such a shock to Sarah to find the dead sheep?
5. Sarah teaches Anna and Caleb how to swim. How does this affect their growing relationship?
6. Maggie, a neighbor's wife, teaches Sarah that "there are always things to miss, no matter where you are." Maggie, Sarah, and Anna all miss something. What does each miss? What does this tell the readers about each character?
7. Sarah insists on helping Papa repair the roof and on learning to drive a horse and wagon. Why doesn't she let Papa repair the roof himself, considering that the task is difficult and there is a squall coming on? Why does she insist on driving the wagon by herself when Papa can take her where she likes?
8. Sarah runs out into a nasty squall to tend her chickens. Why? What do you think of the description of the squall itself?
9. Caleb says that Sarah's drawing lacks the colors of the sea. Why is this important?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. The prairie and its changing seasons and weather play an important role in the novel. Discuss how the weather and seasons affect events and how they reflect the characters' actions and emotions.
2. What did farm children do for fun in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? What were some of their favorite games? What were their toys? How did children on remote midwestern farms get their schooling?
3. Research the everyday life of a farm woman during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What were the most difficult aspects of this life? In what ways was prairie life rewarding or unrewarding?
4. It is very important to Anna, Caleb, and Papa that they form a traditional family unit that includes a mother. How important was the family unit to people living on prairie farms in Sarah's day? Is the basic family unit of father, mother, and children still important on midwestern farms?
5. The children like to sing and value Sarah's singing to them. How important was singing for pleasure in the days before radios, television, and the movies? What sort of songs would people sing in their own homes? Be sure to cite some examples; they do not have to be famous songs. Quote a few lines to give your reader a good idea of what you are talking about. If you make this an oral report, try singing or playing a few bars on a musical instrument.
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Arthur, for the Very First Time describes the adventures of a shy ten-year-old who spends a summer in the country. It features the same fine characterization one finds in Sarah, Plain and Tall. The illustrations by Lloyd Bloom are sensitive and evocative of character and place. In Cassie Binegar, a girl learns to cope with her eccentric family. Unclaimed Treasures delves into the longings and dreams of girlhood.
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For Further Reference
Babbitt, Natalie. "Patricia MacLachlan: The Biography." Horn Book 62 (July/August 1986): 414-416. Babbitt analyzes MacLachlan's character and outlook.
Commire, Anne, ed. Something about the Author. Vol. 42. Detroit: Gale Reesearch, 1986. Contains a two paragraph summary of MacLachlan's career, with a few comments about the novels.
MacLachlan, Patricia. "Newbery Medal Acceptance." Horn Book 62 (July/August 1986): 407-413. This is MacLachlan's response to receiving the Newbery Medal for Sarah, Plain and Tall. In an emotional and humorous discussion, she talks about the influences on her writing, her hopes for how young readers will respond to her books, and her views about language and literature.
MacLachlan, Robert. "A Hypothetical Dilemma." Horn Book 62 (July/August 1986): 416-419. Robert MacLachlan provides significant details about his wife's life, family, and friends. The portrait he provides is of a loving, warm-hearted, and busy woman.
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