Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Newbery Medal winner for 1986, is set on a nineteenth-century prairie farm. Anna (who narrates the novel), her little brother Caleb, and their widowed father have advertised in the Eastern newspapers for a mail order stepmother and bride. They receive a letter of inquiry from a Sarah Wheatman, of Maine. Sarah has formerly kept house for her bachelor brother, who is a fisherman, but now that he is getting married Sarah feels she must make new living arrangements. The next spring Sarah arrives on Anna’s father’s farm to look over the situation and decide if she is willing to make her home with them. Anna, Caleb and their father are very taken with Sarah and hope that she will stay.
Sarah, Plain and Tall is a little story – just 58 pages long - about the delicate business of building a family. It reminded me of nothing so much as a courtship, and really that is what courtship is – the forging a new family out of strangers. And the process will be familiar to anyone who has ever courted either a new family member or a romantic partner: the sensitive explorations of each other, the wondering and guessing as to what the other party is thinking and feeling, and as security and confidence in each other grows, the beginnings of an independence within the context of the new bonds.
So Anna’s little family pores over Sarah’s letters, awaits her coming eagerly, and examines her every expression and action for signs that she is happy with them and will agree to marry Anna’s and Caleb’s father and stay on their farm. The tension caused by Sarah's insistence on driving into town by herself for a day is palpable.
I found it more than a little odd that although Sarah is quite explicit about her own need for a new home and her capacity for hard work, there is no corresponding recognition of the sheer practical necessity of a housekeeper for Anna’s family, nor any mention of how they have been managing without one. Anna’s age is not mentioned, but in the cover illustration she appears to be only twelve or so. Caleb’s age isn’t mentioned either, but he is old enough to read Sarah’s letters without help. Their mother died the day after Caleb was born, and it would have been impossible for nineteenth-century farmer to manage the housekeeping and care of a newborn and a little girl plus his farmwork. In those days, doing the week's laundry alone was a full day’s backbreaking work. And even though Anna might be old enough during the timeframe of the novel to bake bread and make stew and wash the dishes, I doubt that she and her little brother and father could manage all the housework between them and still be able to attend school as she and Caleb do. MacLachlan makes no provision for any of these matters. There’s no mention of the housekeepers Anna’s father surely must have had to hire, or of any help from neighbours. Instead Anna’s family’s only concern is whether Sarah sings, and whether she will like them enough to stay. When Sarah does come she seems to spend most of her days picking flowers, sliding down the haystack, singing, and teaching the children to swim in the cow pond. What work she does do is outdoor work such as fixing the roof or helping in the barn, and when a neighbour tells her she must have a garden, she only mentions growing flowers. It’s all very idyllic, but I kept thinking the family was in for a shock when the honeymoon was over, or even when fall arrived and they have no preserving or sewing done for the winter.
MacLachlan does do very well at conveying to us the sheer novelty Sarah has for Anna's family. Anna and Caleb – and probably their father - have lived lives more limited than any present-day North American can really understand. They would know little of the larger world. The only people they would ever meet would be their neighbours who, culturally and economically speaking, were just like them. They probably had very few books and newspapers, and were educated in a one-room schoolhouse. Caleb’s only knowledge of what having a mother would be like comes from Anna’s often-told stories of their mother. Any woman who travelled even a few hundred miles to live with them would seem exotic. And so Sarah, a plain and plainspoken woman from Maine, is something strange and wonderful, with her yellow sunbonnet, her ability to draw and swim, her new songs, her habit of drying flowers, and her regional idiom. But at the same time, that's love for you, as anyone who has ever watched a friend fall madly in love with someone completely unremarkable will recognize.
Sarah, Plain and Tall is really a novel about the beginnings of love, and love’s ability to glorify the ordinary and make one content with the losses a new life entails. Sarah misses the sea, and her brother, and the three aunts she left behind in Maine. A neighbour and fellow mail-order bride tells Sarah, “There are always things to miss. No matter where you are.” And, recognizing this, Sarah makes her decision of whether to stay or to go on the basis of what she loves, and will miss, the most.