Sarah, Plain and Tall Summary
by Patricia MacLachlan

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Extended Summary

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.

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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...

(The entire section is 1,647 words.)