A Mutual Gift of Love: A Review of ‘Sarah, Plain and Tall’

“Do not be afraid, for she was set apart for you before the world existed.”  Tobit 6:18

Reading Level:

Grades 2-3

Review and Thoughts:

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan is a story about three hearts that still grieve after the death of a wife and mother– hearts that yearn to be filled with love once again.  It is about another earnest heart searching for a place to entrust its love.  Each character is waiting, tentatively looking to the future with hope for a new life as a family.

Anna tells the story of her family by recalling her own memories and making insightful observations. She is in a sense the memory caretaker of life before her mother’s death.   She also knows very well all the changes in her family after her mother’s death and those days all seem like “winter days.”  Caleb does not remember his mother but needs a connection with her.  He does this by asking questions.  He is definitely the kind of boy who is full of questions that some people might be afraid to ask or sometimes not willing to answer.

The story begins when Papa tells Anna and Caleb that he has advertised for a wife.  Papa reads a letter from a woman named Sarah who answers the advertisement.  Through her letters to Papa and eventually the children, Sarah begins to reveal herself.  She is very direct and honest about her abilities, likes, or appearance. “I am plain and tall.”  She agrees to visit for one month just to see how things will be.  

Sarah visits the family in the spring.  The children know that she could possibly be a new mother.  They also know that a month is a long time, and she could change her mind.  They are very sensitive to Sarah’s expressions, words, and attitudes as a gauge to her feelings throughout the month. It seems like they are on high alert as they scrutinize everything about Sarah to try to determine what she is thinking.  Will she leave?  Will she be able to love them?  Does she love the sea more than life with them?  

Sarah immediately begins to tell the family about her life by the sea, which she loves.  She wishes to experience everything on the farm however.  She loves the animals like pets.  When a neighbor brings her three chickens to raise for eating, Anna knows they will never eat those chickens because Sarah has named them.  Sarah even wants to learn how to do essential jobs like plowing. Learning to ride a horse and drive a wagon are also imperative to her because she wants to be able to go to town by herself.   Caleb does not think teaching Sarah to drive the wagon is a good idea however.  He is afraid she will leave. At times he thinks of various childlike scenarios to keep Sarah with them but Anna, as the voice of reason, tells him his ideas will not work.

The day after Sarah learns to drive the wagon she goes to town alone just as she said she would.  She kisses everyone good-bye (even Papa who is taken aback).   Anna and Caleb watch the wagon disappear down the road and Anna remembers watching the wagon take her mother away, and “she never came back.” Caleb thinks Sarah is going to town to buy a train ticket to leave.  He asks Papa what Sarah is doing and Papa pretty much summarizes the Sarah they know so far, “Sarah is Sarah.  She does things her way, you know.”

She of course does come “home” and Caleb begins to cry.   Anna tells her they were worried she was going to leave because she missed the sea.  Sarah explains that she will always miss her old home, but  honestly she would miss them more.  Papa smiles.   Anna knows there will soon be a wedding, and she is now able to think about the future and what will be.  And the future will include Sarah.

Patricia MacLachlan provides many hints throughout the book that reveal the growing relationship of the characters.  Flowers are a part of that.  Sarah mentions she wants to dry some flowers so they will have them for winter.  Caleb of course is happy that Sarah is talking about being there in the winter.  Papa gives Sarah flowers, and she arranges them in her hair.  He also gives her the first roses of the summer.  During a violent storm Sarah rushes outside to save her chickens, and Papa helps her.  Papa comes back with chickens, and Sarah is carrying summer roses. During the storm, Sarah tries to comfort Papa about the storm damage to the farm.  He “puts his arm around her and rests his chin in her hair.”  Papa does not say much in the story but Anna notes at times that Papa’s eyes shine and he smiles at Sarah.  He also begins singing again “like he never stopped.”  

Sarah draws pictures of life on the prairie, but it seems that something is missing and no one can quite put a finger on what that is.  Caleb finally determines that color is missing, and the pictures take on a whole new life when blue, green, and gray are added.  The characters are much like the pictures.  At the beginning of the story they feel something is missing just like the color, but when they find each other their world is truly transformed.  

This book is a beautiful story and one of my favorite books. Caleb is a treasure, but Anna touches my heart. Second and third graders will enjoy the story. Caleb’s character definitely is a charmer and a favorite of children.  The length of the book (58 pages) and storyline is well suited to accomplished third grade readers. The story is so well written that older children will enjoy it as a read aloud book or reading it independently.        

[The movie based on the book is very good, but in my opinion the book is so much better.  As always, the movie changes the story so it is not quite true to the book.  The book is just wonderful the way it is written.]  

Possible Concerns:

There are no concerns with this book.

Further Discussion:

  • Sarah described herself as plain and tall.  How does your child describe himself or herself? [This might be an interesting and revealing question for every member of the family.]
  • Make a chart. Find pictures of the shells Sarah lines up on her shelf and the stones she gives the children. Label each picture.  (scallop, sea clam; oyster, razor clam, conch shell, sea stone, moon snail.)
  • Make a chart. Find pictures of the flowers that grow on the prairie and those that grow by the sea. Divide a piece of paper or poster in half vertically.  Label the columns with the headings Seaside Flowers and Prairie Flowers. Organize the pictures under the correct headings and label each flower. (wild asters,  seaside goldenrod, wooly ragwort, dahlias, columbine, nasturtiums, Indian paintbrush, clover, prairie violets, wild roses, zinnias, marigolds, wild feverfew, bride’s bonnet).
  • Make a Venn diagram comparing the seaside to the prairie.
  • Illustrate the differences between the sea and the prairie.  Divide a paper in half and draw a picture of the sea as described by Sarah on one side and draw a picture of the farm on the prairie on the other side. Try to use the same colors as Sarah used (blue, green, gray).

Catholic Resources

  • “Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift, which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls, with whom they make up a sole family – a domestic church.” St. John Paul II
  • CCC 1613  “On the threshold of his public life Jesus performs his first sign—at his mother’s request—during a wedding feast.105 The Church attaches great importance to Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana. She sees in it the confirmation of the goodness of marriage and the proclamation that thenceforth marriage will be an efficacious sign of Christ’s presence.”
  • A Prayer for the Consecration of the Family [Priests of the Sacred Heart]

Almighty Father, we consecrate ourselves and our home to the Sacred Heart of Jesus who loves us with a tender and everlasting love.  Strengthen us with Your grace that we might return His love in the way we treat, respect, and love each other.  

We welcome Jesus as the living member of our family and ask Him to be the Heart of our family.  We accept Mary as our heavenly Mother and seek her protection and help in our daily lives.

Heavenly Father, grant that our love may go beyond our home into the world so that we may do our part to build up Your kingdom, to feed the hungry, to help the poor, and to lead all souls to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  Amen.


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