Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Sarah, Plain and Tall (1986)

I enjoyed this book and agree with everything in Joanne (the Simple Wife)'s post. I also listened to the audiobook version read by Glenn Close. I enjoyed her efforts to give every character a different voice, although the young Caleb’s was a little too screechy for my taste. The audiobook also had two of the sequels to this book, Skylark (1993) and Caleb’s Story (2001). I’m sure you’re all familiar with them, thanks to the Glenn Close TV films (although the latter was originally called Winter’s End), but did you know there are two more? More Perfect Than the Moon (2004), and Grandfather's Dance (2006) complete the series, according to MacLachlan in an August 7, 2006 interview in Publishers Weekly.

In Caleb’s Story, there are references to World War I (1914-1918) and the influenza epidemic (1918-1919), therefore it is set in 1918. His younger sister Cassie is four years old in that book, therefore Skylark (which ends with Sarah pregnant with Cassie) is set around 1913. At least a whole year has passed between Skylark and Sarah, Plain and Tall, so the latter is set sometime around 1910-1912. MacLachlan was born in 1938, so it is likely that her mother, for whom she wrote the book, and who was also born on the prairie, would have been a young girl around the same time. (MacLachlan was born in Wyoming, and her father in North Dakota in a sod house).

In her Newbery acceptance speech, MacLachlan said that at the time she wrote the book, her mother was beginning to suffer from Alzheimer’s. MacLachlan said she “wished to write my mother’s story…and hand this small piece of my mother’s past to her in a package as perfect as Anna’s sea stone, as Sarah’s sea. But books, like children, grow and change, borrowing bits and pieces of the lives of others to help make them who and what they are. And in the end we are all there, my mother, my father, my husband, my children, and me. We gave my mother better than a piece of her past. We gave her the same that Anna and Caleb and Sarah and Jacob received – a family.”

The “borrowing bits and pieces of the lives of others” may refer to the real Sarah, who, according to an interview with MacLachlan at the end of the audiobook, was MacLachlan’s step-great-grandmother, who really was a mail-order bride from Maine. This character first appeared as Aunt Mag in MacLachlan’s Arthur, For the Very First Time (1980).

As Joanne said in her post, this is a Newbery winner that is more accessible to children. It’s only 56 pages and written at a 3rd-4th grade reading level. Older children might find it too easy or lacking in action (particularly boys). As an adult, I too loved the plain language, Anna’s honest feelings about the birth of Caleb, and the comparisons, implied and stated, of the prairie to the sea.

This would be a good book for children dealing with a new stepparent, or with an impending move. My favorite line in the book is from chapter 7, page 43, when Sarah says, “There is always something to miss, no matter where you are.” As someone who spent 21 years away from my home state and missing it, and who is now back in that home state and misses aspects of my 21-year home, this, like so much of the book, rang true.

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