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Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

65: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan #Newbery100

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?

The best books spark the best conversations! If you have thoughts to share, please feel free to send me a message. I promise a reply. 

 

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