Patricia MacLachlan's spare poetic prose perfectly matches the frontier prairie setting of Sarah, Plain and Tall. The story itself is just as simple—a widowed farmer and his two children invite a Maine woman who lives by the sea, and wait with hope and fear to see whether she will stay.
Much of the novel is comprised of short scenes, none of them pointless or superfluous. Anna and her younger brother Caleb talking about Caleb's birth and their mother's death; Sarah describing the sea as blue and gray and green; Papa unveiling the haystack to Sarah; the storm and its aftermath, all show us the simplicity, joy, and sorrows of life on the plains.
Three themes dominate the book. The first is the sea. Sarah Wheaton has known only the sea, and throughout the story it stands for the past, for independence, and for the unknown, all of these offering Sarah forms of comfort. Anna and Caleb worry that she will leave them and return to the ocean, not realizing that her whistfulness is a relinquishing rather than a longing.
The second is drawing. Sarah communicates beautifully with words, but it is her drawings that truly capture her feelings and desires. She draws the prairie for her brother, conveying her future; she draws the sea for Jacob and his children, bringing together two disparate worlds.
Finally, and most important, there is singing. There has been no singing in the prairie household since the death of Jacob's wife. But Sarah sings new songs, and they carry the promise of life, the promise of motherhood, and the reassurance that she will stay. It's a beautiful image of love growing between people burdened with memories.
MacLachlan's genius is her ability to cast simple people and simple events in language that shows their beauty without a heavy hand. Sarah, Plain and Tall is a children's novel that will appeal to readers of any age. Its simplicity hides great depth, but depth that anyone can appreciate and understand.
Few books so realistically depict family love. Don't be fooled by the movie starring Christopher Walken and Glenn Close—there isn't a bunch of angst or regret here. Sarah brings love and receives love, and this simple, sweet tale celebrates open hearts rather than tortured pasts. Highly recommended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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