Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reading Through History: Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan (1985)

At the end of the 19th century, Anna lives with her father and younger brother, Caleb, on the American frontier. Though it has been years since her mother died, Anna still misses her, and she still resents her younger brother, whose birth caused their mother's death. When the opportunity arises for their father to take a new wife - a  woman from Maine named Sarah - both children are eager for the presence of a woman in their household once again, but they each worry that Sarah will miss her home too much to stay for good.

Over the past couple of years, I have been  reading many of Patricia MacLachlan's newer titles for kids, all of which have a very literary and adult sensibility. Books like Kindred Souls, Fly Away, The Truth of Me, and White Fur Flying seem almost over-written, as though they are trying to infuse themselves with more meaning than they actually have. I was a little bit curious, therefore, to see how Sarah, Plain and Tall would hold up for me, considering I haven't read it in a number of years.

Thankfully, while MacLachlan's newer titles use flowery language in a way that feels gimmicky, this classic 1985 book (winner of the 1986 Newbery Medal) is truly beautiful. Each word is carefully chosen and precisely placed, and the descriptions of everything from Sarah's home by the sea, to the growing admiration between her and Papa, to Anna's and Caleb's own fears about the loss of her, help paint a perfect portrait of a newly-formed family. The historical time period is more of a backdrop than a character in this book, but even so, the details about how the children travel to school, and what they must do to protect themselves during a storm, give good insight into how families lived in this time and place. The concept of a mail-order bride is also something kids are not likely to be familiar with, and that may prompt some questions and discussions about marriage then versus marriage now.

Because of its length, this book is a great choice for kids on the younger end of the middle grade spectrum, in grades 2 to 4, and it would work wonderfully as a family read-aloud for a variety of ages, even including kids as young as 5 or 6. There are also four sequels: Skylark (1994), Caleb’s Story (2000), More Perfect than the Moon (2004), and Grandfather’s Dance (2006).

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