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2022 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Newbery Medal. In honor of this momentous event, I launched a project to read through each award-winner, starting with some background on the award and with commentary on the first medal winner: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon. Today I take up the 1986 recipient: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan.

Winner: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (Harper)

Honor Books:

Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun by Rhoda Blumberg (Lothrop)

Dogsong by Gary Paulsen (Bradbury)

Members of the 1986 Newbery Medal Selection Committee: Chair Dudley B. Carlson, Roslyn C. Beitler, Scott Blume, Clara N. Bohrer, Josephine S. Carr, Annie L. Carroll, Linda Abby Fein, Carole D. Fiore, Eva-Maria Lusk, Paula Morrow, Gwen K. Packard, Caroline S. Parr, Connie C. Rockman, Sunny A. Strong, Diana D. Young.


Long before there was a Hallmark channel (and its requisite slate of sappy holiday movies), there were the Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movies. These were big-budget movies with big-name actors produced by Hallmark and aired on network TV. In 1991, the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie featured Oscar-nominated actors Glenn Close and Christopher Walken in Sarah, Plain and Tall. Author Patricia MacLachlan adapted her book for the screen and was pleased to see Close bring her Sarah to life. But though star power and the ubiquity of TV has undoubtedly brought her fans, for MacLachlan, winning the 1986 Newbery medal was the real honor.

In her acceptance speech, she refers repeatedly to the daily and the ordinary, an unsurprising focus, I suppose, for a book about a woman who describes herself as "plain." MacLachlan explains that what sometimes feel like "startling observations" in her early writing hours turn out to be ordinary moments:

the odd glass of water, the coffee dregs, the garbage of the day -- those things, surprise or no surprise, that are what life and literature are made up of.

She cites Julius Lester's belief that children's literature is that which "gives full attention to the ordinary" and recalls her parents' belief that it is the "daily grace and dignity with which we survive that children most need and wish to know about."

But for all that, MacLachlan's book is not plain, nor is it ordinary. Indeed, it is no high fantasy, but to young readers in the 1980s, MacLachlan's backwards glance at pioneer life on the prairie might have felt as foreign as the land described in runner-up Commodore Perry in the Land of the Shogun. Originally conceived as a picture book, Sarah, Plain and Tall is poetic and gentle and full of art.

Like Beverly Cleary's Dear Mr. Henshaw, MacLachlan's book has letters at its heart. Before the opening of the book, widower Jacob Witting (Papa to Anna and Caleb) had "placed an advertisement in the newspapers. For help." When he tells the children of this decision, Anna asks, "You mean a housekeeper?" and gets the following reply.

"No," said Papa slowly. "Not a housekeeper." He paused. "A wife."

Caleb, who does not remember his mother as she died in childbirth, knows that a wife for his Papa might mean a mother to him and to big sister, Anna. A heaviness covers these opening pages as we learn from the very first that Papa doesn't sing anymore, that Anna has had to assume many of the domestic and motherly duties, making dinner and telling Caleb stories again and again.

Astute readers know that "mail-order brides" were a reality often rooted in economics and logistics, men seeking women or women seeking stability or escape from untenable situations (Sarah has been living with her brother, who is unexpectedly now to marry). Though unlikely, a courtship of sorts could take place by mail, and MacLachlan captures this aspect perfectly as Sarah charms and is charmed by the Witting family through letters.

Beyond graceful descriptions and lyrical prose, I believe it is these letters that mark Sarah, Plain and Tall as a title of distinction. We are only given her letters though the ones they sent are as clear to us as if we had read them ourselves. Voice and story are captured and advanced in the smallest of spaces, such as when Sarah speaks (plainly) about her circumstances:

My choice, as you can see, is limited. This should not be taken as an insult.

Or when she responds to Anna's questions:

Yes, I can braid hair and I can make stew and bake bread, though I prefer to build bookshelves and paint. My favorite colors are the colors of the sea, blue and gray and green, depending on the weather. My brother William is a fisherman, and he tells me that when he is in the middle of a fogbound sea the water is a color for which there is no name.

Or when she adds the postscript to her final letter, the one that tell she will come by train, that she will wear a yellow bonnet, that she is plain and tall:

Tell them I sing.

It is a book about two grownups, really. Two grownups in the beginning of what might be a solid and enriching relationship. But it is also about Anna and Caleb and their aching need for a mother, and when Sarah proves to be someone that might fill that need, their desperate hope is palpable and dear. Understanding both of those elements, I worry that the award was given by adults who loved the book as only adults could, especially perhaps as only mothers could. But it is remarkably done in its simplicity, its grace, and yes, its ordinariness.

All children -- even those in startlingly different circumstances than Anna and Caleb -- can understand the feeling of missing someone you've lost, of wanting something you hardly had, and of hoping. But for many children, I would think, this book would be so far from their experience as to be irrelevant. And I can't help but wonder what other titles were considered and passed over in favor of the small 1986 selections. I wonder whose "daily grace and dignity" was not even getting published, whose story wasn't considered "ordinary" enough to be told?

Do I still love this book? I do. But given that I share so much with the title character (including a name, for she is Sarah Elizabeth to my Sara Beth) and probably the 1986 selection committee, that is not a surprise. What about all the children who don't look or live like Caleb and Anna? What happens when we define ordinariness by our own life's ordinary?

Plain Bad Heroines is a book that surprised me in multiple ways -- all of them pleasant. I'm grateful to author emily m. danforth for her work and for this generous interview. Her insights and challenges are a perfect match for her book, and I'm already looking forward to what's next for her.

sbw: The premise of Plain Bad Heroines is amazing and complicated and vivid, so I knew early on my first question to you was going to be about your inspiration - how you came to write this particular story in this way. Then, as I finished the book and read the acknowledgments where you (parenthetically) thank Mary MacLane, who I thought was a FICTIONAL author in your book, and well, my mind was blown. So, what can you tell me about Mary MacLane and her life and her work and yes, how you came to write this particular story?

ed: Ahhh! You’re certainly not the first reader who’s told me about having a similar experience in regard to assuming Mary MacLane was yet another layer of the novel’s many fictions. (I’m not sure how MM herself would feel about this. Sometimes I think she’d love it but other times. . .Yeah. Not so sure.)

What I can tell you about Mary MacLane is that she’s far too fascinating a forgotten figure to be summarized quickly. She was a hugely bestselling American author and personality at the turn of the twentieth century, mostly due to the success of her debut memoir, written when she was only nineteen. (It was published under the title The Story of Mary MacLane, though Mary had wanted it titled I Await the Devil’s Coming. Which, I mean: so good.) This book sold something like 80,000 copies in its first month alone, and inspired cocktails, cigars, and baseball teams to be named after her. (I’m not kidding.) It’s a brash, honest, deeply felt account of her daily life and musings, which include (among other things) passages detailing her stark ambition and “genius,” her overwhelming desire for fame, as well as several sections of very frank writing about her romantic and sexual interest in her former teacher, Miss Fannie Corbin.

If all of this seems like the stuff of your everyday social media post, remember: we’re talking 1902, here. People were scandalized! (And some pretended to be scandalized in order to sell newspapers. Both the book, and Mary herself, were rather breathlessly covered in papers across the country for months.) The memoir, which she called her Portrayal, was, to put it simply: a literary sensation. Mary MacLane went on to write other books, work for newspapers and magazines, and eventually to even star in a silent film based on a script she wrote: Men Who Have Made Love to Me. And yet, as your question illustrates, her life and work have been largely forgotten, even by feminist scholars. (There are exceptions to this, certainly, but given her strikingly original voice, and her notable erstwhile literary and cultural relevance, you’d think she’d be much better known today than she is.)

(As an aside: Penelope Rosemont’s 2019 article about her for the Paris Review blog is a fantastic starting point if you’re looking for an introductory overview of MacLane’s life and work:

But really, I suggest reading The Story of Mary MacLane and relishing firsthand in her voice.)

Mary was, I think unfairly, written-off by many critics of her day as a mere provocateur, a sensation, but there’s real style to her writing, and a vivid humor. I’ve now read The Story of Mary MacLane four or five times—and individual passages from it dozens more—and I continue to be taken in by her candor, her intellect, and her bravado. Obviously, her book became hugely influential to me in terms of giving me access to this incredible voice of a young queer woman from that time—thinking the things she thought and writing them, too. We have a record! But beyond that, I was also interested in this idea of her as a wunderkind writer—partly because my character, Merritt, inhabits that space some 115 years later. One part of Mary’s life story that’s so remarkable to me is that, without any notable literary connections or legs-up, and from her family home in Butte, Montana, at the age of nineteen, she set out to write a book that would make her famous and it ended up doing exactly that. Mary knows, even at that age, that fame likely won’t bring her happiness—at least not lasting happiness—but it’s fame she most desires (then) and she sure got it.

And so, to the second part of your question: there are many, many threads of my personal inspiration and obsession twined together in Plain Bad Heroines. Far too many to list here succinctly. However, an early one was certainly my interest in supposedly cursed films—cursed sets, cursed productions—particularly horror films like The Omen and Poltergeist, etc. I knew I wanted to write a novel about such a film during its production. And I had my setting, an abandoned boarding school in coastal Rhode Island. But what I didn’t know, what I set about to answer for myself, is why my boarding school was abandoned in the first place. What macabre series of troubles befell it and caused it to close? Given that I was interested in writing about the gilded age, which fits with the publication of Mary’s book, and that there’s a long history of writers of gothic fiction embedding their curses in objects (like books) passed from person to person, things began to come together for me in terms of including The Story of Mary MacLane as part of my plot. For those who haven’t read the novel, it seems worth pointing out that it’s a copy of Mary’s most famous book that takes centerstage in Plain Bad Heroines, and not Mary herself, who is not on the page as a fictional character, despite what I’ve seen some writing about my novel suggest. Regardless, I’m thrilled to know that PBH has introduced Mary MacLane to so many readers—even if some (like you!) spend much of the novel thinking I made her up.

sbw: We recently passed another Lesbian Visibility Day/Week (and Pride month is just around the corner), and I wonder if you could speak to those critics who might try to argue this book has “too many lesbians” in it. Of course, I also understand if you think those critics don’t deserve a response, so alternatively, why is it so important that we have representation (especially for young adults) of thoughtful, complicated relationships between women?

ed: It’s a challenge for me not to want to be a bit cheeky in response to a criticism like “too many lesbians.” I mean, I suppose I might say that I’m just trying to make up for vast majority of novels published each year (and throughout time!) with no lesbians at all.

Like a lot of queer women my age, I grew up in a time when I took for granted that the lives of Sapphics of the past were most often infuriatingly coded or sanitized or simply erased entirely from our collective history. This was the rule, not the exception. So part of the impulse of telling this story was writing those queer women back into history without making them vessels for messages or moralizing, but instead rendering them as people who, like so many of us, sometimes make choices out of personal desire and self-interest, even when those choices put us in conflict with social or cultural norms, and also, sometimes when those choices put us in conflict with our own ideals and convictions.

It was also exciting to me, as a novelist with an abiding love for Gothic Horror, to show queer characters of the past and present in the same novel. There’s a long tradition of mirroring in Gothic fiction, and while I loved playing with all kinds of echoes, reflections, and doubling in Plain Bad Heroines (similar scenes repeat, between past and present, sometimes even whole lines of text repeat in full), I was often thinking most directly of connections and divergences between the contemporary queer characters and the queer characters of the past. My life is filled with all kinds of LGBTQIA identifying people, lesbian and queer women in particular, and yet, as you point out, it’s still pretty rare to read a novel with a cast of predominately queer characters embodying their queerness in myriad ways. Rare enough, I suppose, that some cranky critic might call it implausible. I think not. I think said critic needs to get out more. Harper Harper and Audrey, Merritt and Alex, Bo and Harold and Libbie and Sara, Clara and Flo—each of them is queer, and yet not one of them embodies and understands and upholds that queer identity in precisely ways the others do. This should not be a radical concept in 2021.

sbw: I 100% agree, and I'm thankful for your decidedly un-radical stance! Let’s talk language for a moment. Certain words make recurring appearances in the book without feeling repetitive or overused. I’m thinking of scuttle, in particular. How did you manage this feat?

ed: Well, in the case of that word in particular, I drew attention to its usage early on. The word scuttle is called out, described, lingered on, even questioned—by the narrator—in regard to its correctness—is it a scuttle that’s being overheard? Does that word get at the strangeness of the creepy sound, the movement, as the best way to capture it? Again, the narrative voice comes into play, here, because I’ve worked to establish the narrator as someone who ponders these kinds of things as part of the narration—the very telling of the story. Also, scuttle is a useful word to consider because, like so many words in English, it not only has several meanings, it can also be used as a verb—quick, short steps/furtive movement; and a noun—the act or sound of scuttling. As I mentioned, I was considering mirroring/doubling a great deal in the writing of this novel, so a word like scuttle was especially appealing to me.

Again, though, I think calling out its usage within the narration—so that readers are really forced to notice it, to contend with it—is key to my then being able to repeat its usage without it seeming like I just don’t know any other words or need a thesaurus or something. I mean, its repetition is very clearly intentional. The form of a novel—especially one of this length—really gives a writer the room to mine repetition for all its thematic and aesthetic weight in ways there’s just not the space for in an eight, or even twenty-page short story.

sbw: This book is chock-full of quiet moments of social commentary. For example, when we are first introduced to Clara, we are told of her wealth and the way her parents

had a fastidious respect for the orderly following of the rules and systems from which they benefited. It all made them feel quite secure in the correctness of their position within the social order, and security was Clara’s mother’s favorite feeling, outranked only by virtuous womanhood.

There’s a bite there, but it is subtle. How did you manage to accuse without being accusatory?

ed: I feel like I’m answering so many of these questions with some reference to the narrative voice, but I suppose that’s how it should be. That’s why it was so necessary to my writing process to finally land on the correct voice and tone. And I think it’s a big part of the answer to this question, too. This is a narrator who sometimes feigns an almost academic remove, or even gentility, in their hot takes and descriptions—but it’s always meant to be understood as feigned, put on, ironic.

Sometimes, intentionally, the narrator “slips-up” and just drops the feigned, whispered behind the hand kind of effect entirely and, as you put it, accuses while very much being accusatory. In several instances, I turned down the volume on the narrative voice, or just plain muted it, and let the narration slip pretty close to the consciousness of whichever POV character we might have been following in that particular chapter, so in those passages, the social commentary being offered comes from the character. But when that happens it should be pretty clear to readers that it is, and predominately, in this novel, any social commentary comes from the narrator.

sbw: Which image do you prefer for your story: Nesting Doll or Tangled Thicket?

ed: Ha! Can’t we go with a matryoshka nested in a tangled thicket? I guess that’s too much, isn’t it? Even for this novel. Tangled Thicket it is. sbw: Finally, here’s the lightning round. Make whatever recommendation comes to mind first! There are no wrong answers!

--One Book

I have to pick two novels here (please, please!) one published YA and one for adults. They’re both by queer women writers, both set in the past, both really wonderful, gorgeously written stories, and I realized recently just how similar their titles happen to be:

Last Night at the Blue Angel by Rebecca Rotert (2014)

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (2021)

--One Song

Beat Control by Tilly and the Wall (For dancing around your house this summer. Or that’s how I listen to it, at any rate.)

--One Movie

Wild Nights With Emily (directed by Madeleine Olnek, 2018) If you haven’t seen this micro-budget, sometimes hilarious film starring Molly Shannon as Emily Dickinson, you’re in for a treat. (And might never look at/read Dickinson the same way again: a good thing!)

--One Poem

i am running into a new year by Lucille Clifton

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