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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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Literary Qualities

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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 events ever mindful of how happy or unhappy Sarah seems, her concern a manifestation of her love for Sarah. The dialogue in the book is sparse, and thus plot advances are signaled primarily by a gradation of emotions. Hopeful yet slightly reserved at first, the children eventually open their hearts completely to Sarah. At the end of the story MacLachlan reports that "suddenly Caleb smiled," and this spontaneous show of emotion more accurately reflects the happiness that has come to the family than could any words Caleb might speak.

Social Sensitivity

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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...

(The entire section contains 994 words.)

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