Sarah, Plain and Tall shows, rather than tells, the progression of understanding surrounding the visit of a mail-order bride. Brilliantly told from the perspective of the widower’s young daughter, we see how respectable adult decisions can be puzzling to children.
Anna’s mother had died the day after Caleb was born. Her parents’ lively singing had once brightened their prairie farm, but now Papa (Jacob) was silent. She longed for that bright happiness again. One day Papa put an advertisement in an Eastern paper for a wife. That spring, after a brief letter exchange, Sarah Wheaton’s last letter said, “I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall.”
Sarah had brought sea shells for the children. She remarked how the undulating prairie land looked a bit wavy, but her gaze lingered too long. She would tell them of her life in Maine, as she brushed their hair …tossing the tangles outside for birds to use for nesting. One time she told them of the sand dunes they slid down as children. “We have no dunes here”, said Caleb. “Yes we do”, said Papa as he went out. Moments later he called them outside. A ladder was leaning up the slippery, canvas-covered haystack, and loose hay was piled on the other side!
Young readers will focus first on what the children think and what the adults say. They will learn of Sarah’s homesickness and enjoy the interest and benevolence she shows them.
The great quality of this story is in the way MacLachlan gradually introduces small actions, observed by the children, which subtley reveal the understanding and appreciation growing between Sarah and Papa. While these actions (quickly making her a haystack slide) suggest Papa likes her, are Sarah’s actions those of a visitor or of someone forming a commitment?
MacLachlan keeps the uncertainty alive, while building Sarah’s value to the family. This creates a tension that hinges on Sarah’s character, not on some superficial crisis of action. The climax of the story is brilliantly withheld until the last, four words of the story!
The crude cover illustration, though it captures the context well enough, is unable to project the intelligent and gentle sense-of-life MacLachlan generates. Sarah, Plain and Tall is a smart story worth keeping, and re-reading.
(The movie, Sarah, Plain and Tall (on YouTube in 9 parts), though nice, deprives us of that unique look into the characters’ minds that only the written word can achieve. Sarah & Jacob clash too much too soon, and the children’s fears must be presented in dialogue, rather than as their thoughts. Despite the worthy efforts of the Director and actors, we remain on-lookers.)