By Maureen Tai, 6 July 2018
“There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.” – Sarah
Anna and Caleb live in a lonesome house in the prairies back in the days before electricity and piped water and telephones. They pine for their Mama, who died a day after Caleb was born, and their Papa silently longs for a wife. So Anna and Caleb’s father, Mr. Jacob Witting, decides to put an advertisement in the newspapers for such a companion. And Ms. Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton responds.
In her letter, Sarah says “I am strong and I work hard and I am willing to travel. But I am not mild mannered. If you should still care to write, I would be interested in your children and about where you live. And you.”
There is a whole lot about Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton that we know from those sentences alone. And we haven’t even met her yet.
The gist of the story is simple, all told succinctly within 67 pages. Will the tall and plain Sarah like what she sees after she makes the long trek west to the land-locked prairies from her beloved home in Maine-by-the-sea? Will quiet Papa, observant Anna and irrepressibly curious Caleb like her? And even if everyone – humans, pets and farm animals – falls in love with everyone else, will that be enough to make Sarah stay? Will she sing with them, draw with them, plough the fields with them, and make their family complete for all the seasons to come? Will she?
What sets Patricia MacLachlan apart from other authors is her extraordinary ability to both convey rich meaning and illicit deep emotional responses using the least number of words necessary to get the job done. I imagine her like a jeweller; thoughtfully, carefully, painstakingly and wisely hand-picking, polishing and arranging her gem-like words until they are set perfectly in place.
The author received the coveted Newbery Medal for her story, and her acceptance speech is reproduced at the end of the book. We discover then that she and her parents are from the prairies, and that the Sarah of her tale is based on a real living person of very similar circumstances. We also discover that MacLachlan’s masterpiece is a hauntingly beautiful ode to her own mother who tragically loses her memories and finally, her words, to that dreadful disease, Alzheimer’s.
To say that Sarah, Plain and Tall is an emotionally satisfying read is an understatement. It is a heartfelt exploration of loss and of desire, of regret and of hope, of memories and of forgetting, of letting go of the familiar and of embracing the new. It is wondrous. And it is a story that will always, always stay with you.
For ages 8 and up.