Would you put an ad for a spouse? Would you answer such an ad? I suppose such an idea is so strange for most (if not) all of us. Currently, relationships and marriages are results of a long process of meeting, dating, and romance. Marriages and relationships aren’t necessarily about practicality, but are supposedly built on love and whatnot. There is nothing remotely romantic about finding a spouse or mother for your children via an ad, but this is the story’s premise. Jacob, widow and father to Anna and Caleb, put out an ad for a wife.

Sarah, Plain and Tallwas written in 1985, the story however was set in Western United States during the 19th century. While I rarely give much importance to context when reading (unless of course interpreting the book), context is important as the story revolves around an idea that is not quite alive presently.

Jacob puts out an ad and gets a reply from a woman in Maine. Her name is Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton. Her letter is straightforward and matter of fact. In response to the letter, all three family members write to Sarah. The correspondence continues until finally Sarah says she’s coming to visit for a month to “see” how things are in the country.

Upon Sarah’s arrival she mentions she’ll be wearing a yellow bonnet—an image that would introduce anxiety and joy for our motherless/wifeless family. Upon her arrival, we watch, as readers, how a family’s relationship grows from fragility to permanence. The children worry about being liked enough for this woman from Maine to stay and become their mother. This is where the author skillfully creates a subtle story. The children notice Sarah’s words and body language. Her sighs and mentions of the sea shake their dreams of having a mother. Maine is so different from the country. There are no dunes, no sea shells in the country. But Maclachlan’s writing is filled with quiet events that tell us that our character has made up her mind. The author writes, “We have Squalls in Maine, too,” she said. “Just like this. It will be alright, Jacob.” Such a simple sentence tells us that despite the difference between her hometown and her current location, she has found a point of meeting.

I think what makes this short novel a wonderful read and deserving of its award is the writing. The author lets the image speak, she allows the readers to interpret the scene. Being a stickler for editorializing in novels, I love authors who allows us to discover the meaning of the image. In the midst of the squall scene, Maclachlan writes:

Papa said nothing. But he put his arm around her, and leaned over to rest his chin in her hair. I closed my eyes, suddenly remembering Mama and Papa standing that way, Mama smaller than Sarah, her hair fair against Papa’s shoulder. When I opened my eyes again, it was Sarah standing there. Caleb looked at me and smiled and smiled until he could smile no more.

The author has command over the images and I appreciate how subtle and simple her words and images are, but engaging enough. I especially love, as she settles the children’s worries, when they find themselves looking at “dust and yellow bonnet” making its way to their house and with it is Sarah’s little gift of the sea—colored pencils of blue, green and gray.

Patricia Maclachlan was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming. She lived in Wyoming and Minnesota before moving East. She lost both parents at early ages. After graduating from University of Connecticut, she became an English teacher.  MacLachlan is also a board member of the National Children’s Book and Literacy Alliance, a national not-for-profit that actively advocates for literacy, literature, and libraries. Her current projects include two books she’s co-written with her daughter, Emily MacLachlan: Bittle and Painting the Wind. Other books by her include Edward’s Eyes, The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt, Arthur for the Very First Time,and Baby, which was also adapted into a film. (source: wikipedia)


 1986 Newbery Medal, 1986 Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, 1986 Golden Kite Award.

AWB Reading Challenge Update: 102 (35)

Newbery Reading Challenge Update: 5 of 12

2 comments on “Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan

  1. This is a wonderful book. My 4th grade son just read it in school and I read it to my children when they were pretty young (he didn’t remember it). Rereading that scene above make me smile. It is a sweet sweet love story…


    • It is indeed a wonderful book. While it is very much unlike the recent popular literature of paranormal creatures or middle school drama, the writing itself is wonderful and I think beautifully executed that its a wonderful break from the usual.


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