“Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb. “Every-single-day?” He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones.
I’m not sure when I first read Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan, but I think I must have read a school copy, because I didn’t have a copy of my own until I bought one at the library book sale a while back. Why was I compelled to buy a copy, I wonder?
Setting out to write this review of my re-reading of Sarah, Plain and Tall, I realized I didn’t have any specific memories attached to reading it, like I have with The Boxcar Children. I honestly couldn’t tell you how it influenced me growing up. Maybe I liked how alien the landscape and the time period was to me. I was three when it was published (1985), so while it takes place in an earlier time, the book itself wouldn’t have been very old when I read it. I can only tell you that I did read it, because as I was re-reading it, everything about the story was familiar to me. I’m fairly sure I saw the 1991 movie with Glenn Close and Christopher Walken (!), as well.
Until now, I didn’t know that this is the first of five books about the Anna, Caleb and Jacob Witting, as well as Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton. And I didn’t know that there were three movies, each written by MacLachlan and with the original cast members.
I was surprised by how short it is (58 pages), yet how fully realized the story and characters are considering its brevity. Within the first two pages, you have a very strong sense of the personalities, the situation and the place and they are all responsible for making this novella such a lasting tale.
Reading it now, as an adult, I am struck by how eager Jacob and his kids are to make Sarah feel at home, to convince her to love them and make the rather unforgiving landscape her home. Her love of the sea seems like too large an obstacle, but each of the Witting family members uses it to connect with Sarah and to link her to their home.
My copy of the book has a short author’s note that ends: “Sarah, Plain and Tall is based on a true event in [MacLachlan’s] family history.” The bio on the back says that she was born in Wyoming and went to college in Connecticut, later making her home in Massachusetts. It seems like she had the reverse of Sarah’s experience, beginning in the prairie and ending up by the sea. In another interesting biographical detail, MacLachlan later wrote several books with her daughter Emily.
I suspect that many of the aspects that I liked about Sarah, Plain and Tall, were those that later drew me to Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I read for the first time at 18 years old and which remains one of my favorite novels.