Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547
Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan is a short, sweet historical novel about loneliness and family. MacLachlan’s language is simple but strong, and she shows her characters’ emotions clearly from the first page to the last. The novel won many awards, including the prestigious Newbery Medal in 1986.
At the beginning of Sarah, Plain and Tall, Caleb asks his big sister, Anna, about their mama. She tells him that Mama used to sing every day. Papa sang too, but both children know he does not sing anymore. They are lonely for Mama, who is gone, and in a way they are lonely for Papa, too, because he is no longer the same man he was when their Mama was alive.
Anna bakes bread, and Caleb presses her to tell the story of his birth. She says he came out looking like dough, but he wants the story the way he knows it. Anna gives in and tells how their Mama looked at Caleb and said, “Isn’t he beautiful, Anna?” Anna does not say what she thought at the time—that the baby was ugly, loud, and smelly. She keeps one more thought to herself, too: “Mama died the next morning. That was the worst thing about Caleb.” Anna remembers that relatives came and took the body away and then left the little family to loneliness. Anna was so sad that at first she could not love Caleb, not for three days. Even when she learned to love him, the house seemed empty.
Papa comes in, and Caleb asks him why he does not sing anymore. Papa says he cannot remember the songs, “But maybe there’s a way to remember them.” He explains that he has advertised in the newspaper for a wife who will be a new mother to the children. He shows the children a letter from a woman named Sarah. In it, she explains that she has always lived with her brother, who is now getting married, which makes her feel she must find another place to live. Sarah says she is “strong” and “willing to travel” but “not mild-mannered.” She also says her cat, Seal, will come along if she marries someone. She invites Papa to write if this sounds okay to him.
Anna, Caleb, and Papa all write letters to Sarah. Anna wants to know if she can braid hair and bake. Caleb wants to know if she knows how to make fires and if she snores. Sarah answers yes to the first three questions but says, “I do not know if I snore. Seal has never told me.” Both kids like the sound of Sarah, but they worry she will not want them. Sarah always writes about the sea, and Anna can tell she will miss the ocean if she comes to live on the prairie. Caleb worries that he is too loud to be lovable and that their house is too small.
Not long later, Sarah writes to Papa to say she will come for a month’s visit to see how it works. She calls herself “plain and tall,” and she says to tell the children she sings. When they learn she is coming, the family spends the day smiling over their farm chores.
When Sarah comes, Papa combs his hair and dresses up to go meet her. The children wait on the front porch, eager but scared. Caleb pesters Anna to tell him he is clean enough, but then he worries he might be “too clean.” Anna assures him that Sarah will be nice, but she cannot bring herself to promise that Sarah will like them. On that count, he has to reassure himself.
After a long wait, the children see Papa’s wagon coming. Sarah and her cat, Seal, are with him. Caleb rushes to her and asks if she brought the sea. She tells him she has “something from the sea.” She gives Caleb a shell, and she gives Anna a rock that has been worn smooth by the waves. Caleb points out that there is no sea nearby, and Sarah tells him that the rolling prairie is a little like the sea. The children can tell she is trying to reassure them, but they see in her eyes that she misses her home already.
For the next few days, the children are constantly on the watch for clues that Sarah might decide to stay. When Sarah dries flowers for winter, Caleb decides she is planning to stay through the winter. During a conversation about flowers, Anna drops hints about weddings but gets no clue about Sarah’s thoughts on that. Every time Sarah uses a word that refers vaguely to the future—such as later—the kids take it as a reassurance.
The whole family works hard to make Sarah feel welcome. Papa makes bread and compliments her on her stew. They all say ayuh for yes because Sarah says that is how people speak back in Maine. When Sarah gives Caleb a haircut, she spreads his hair for the birds to use in nests. After Sarah gives Papa a haircut, Anna catches Papa spreading his own hair. Sarah sings, and Sarah tells stories.
However, Sarah’s loneliness for her home is clear. She tells the family about dunes, and Papa builds her a dune made of hay in the barn. He teases her, saying she is too scared to slide down, but she says, “Scared? You bet I’m not scared!” She and the kids take turns sliding down the haystack. By the end, even Papa takes a turn. Sarah writes to her brother about the experience and draws him some pictures. Caleb studies the drawings and says something is missing.
Like Papa, the kids are eager to please Sarah. When she asks about winter, they are tentative about telling her how much snow they get—until they learn that she is used to a great deal of snow. When she asks if it gets windy, Caleb hesitates until Sarah tells him the sea is very windy. Then he tells all about blowing snow and tumbleweeds. When Sarah wants to teach the kids to swim in the cow pond, they think this is crazy, but they are so eager to do what she wants that they give in. They can tell that swimming makes Sarah happy, but they can also tell she would rather swim in the sea.
One day the neighbors, Matthew and Maggie, come to help Papa. Matthew met Maggie through the mail, just the way Papa met Sarah. When Sarah and Maggie sit down together, Anna watches and listens. “You are lonely, yes?” Maggie says, and Sarah’s eyes fill up. The two women talk about the parts of their homes they miss, but Maggie says, “There are always things to miss...no matter where you are.” She gently hints that she hopes Sarah will stay, and she helps Sarah plant a garden so she will feel more at home.
As promised, Sarah is “not mild-mannered.” She wears overalls and insists on doing traditionally male jobs like fixing the roof. When she learns that women on the prairie drive wagons and ride horses, she demands to learn. Papa is hesitant, but he agrees and does not object when she says she will take the wagon to town by herself. The children are terrified that she will go away on a train and leave them, but they do not ask what she is planning to do.
Before Sarah can learn to drive, a rain squall begins. The family rushes to get the horses and sheep and cows inside the barn. As the rain arrives, Sarah runs to save the chickens, too. Papa follows and helps her bring them to the barn. Afterward, they stand together and watch the rain, Sarah with her head on Papa’s shoulder. When the squall is over, Caleb points out the colors—blue and gray and green, like Sarah’s sea.
The next day, Sarah still insists on learning to drive and going by herself to town. Caleb wants to pretend to be sick so she will have to stay. When Anna says no, he suggests tying Sarah up. Anna refuses this too, and Caleb cries, terrified Sarah is going away. Anna and Papa are just as scared although they do not admit it. Instead, they try to reassure themselves. Papa says they have to let Sarah be herself, and Anna points out that Sarah has left Seal behind, which she would not have done if she meant to leave. As the family waits, Anna sets the table for dinner. She is careful to set out four plates, enough for the three of them and Sarah, too.
As night falls, Sarah arrives home in the wagon. Caleb cries again, and Anna admits that they all worried Sarah might leave. Sarah says:
I will always miss my old home, but the truth of it is I would miss you more.
Papa retreats to take care of the horses so he can hide his emotions. Anna and Caleb ask why Sarah went to town. Sarah shows them a box, which Caleb opens. Inside are three colored pencils: blue, gray, and green. Sarah has brought them her sea.
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