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sarah, plain and tall

23 january 2015

Sarah, Plain and Tall is a spare, lyrical book. When you put it on a shelf of Newbery Medal books between The Hero and the Crown and The Whipping Boy – no doorstops themselves – it is so thin it practically vanishes.

Patricia MacLachlan's novel became a TV-movie vehicle for Glenn Close and might have an enduring, if slender, place in the children's literature canon even if it weren't for the immortality conveyed by the Medal. Ostensibly, it's the story of a successful exercise in mail-order step-parenting. Prairie-girl narrator Anna's mother has died just after giving birth to Anna's younger brother Caleb. The children are plucky, endearing, and lonely without a mother, and they realize that their somewhat taciturn father is depressed. When Sarah, the Maine woman their father writes away for, arrives in her yellow bonnet, they realize that Sarah is also depressed. Will the prospective partners depress each other further, or bring each other out of their despair?

Sarah misses Maine, but eventually formulates the novel's wisest principle: "There is always something to miss, no matter where you are" (43). Love never blossoms, but all concerned develop a sense that making do is more than merely making do; it's most of the battle.

The characters are a little fey, a little philosophical, but not annoyingly so. Jacob, the father, is so gentle that he might as well be a child himself. There are no grim realities of sodbusting patriarchy or bartered-bride abuse here. Yet even so, MacLachlan creates overtones of melancholy, loss, and being ill at ease in the world that may not quite resonate with a child reader who sprints ahead to the happy ending.

There's not much to Sarah, Plain and Tall, but sometimes books that merely imply can say more than those that are voluble.

MacLachlan, Patricia. Sarah, Plain and Tall. 1985. New York: HarperCollins, 1987. PZ 7 .M2225Sar