In conjunction with a re-read challenge, my first Newbery for this year is Sarah, Plain and Tall. The first time I read it, I remember being mesmerized by the “exotic” lifestyle of living in Wyoming on a farm. I grew up in the suburbs, and I had only visited an educational farm on a field trip. I believe I read this book for the first time in 1st grade? I’m 30 now, to help provide a timeline. This time, the book read a little more quickly, but I still enjoyed it. However, my enjoyment came from a new place.
As a child, I certainly related to Anna, our young narrator. She and her brother both miss their mother who passed on, and Anna is exhausted of comforting her brother about their lack of a mother figure. She has taken the place of the woman of the house, but it’s not fulfilling to her. She’s quite young; I’d guess about 12-years-old. What Anna really wants is someone who will sing for her and braid her hair and take care of them all. She was looking for a perfect female role model, as all little girls are.
Rereading this book as an adult, I found Sarah, the replacement mother figure, to be the much more fascinating character.
I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall.
Sarah lived a beautiful life in Maine close to her family, but as a maid (single woman, in this case; not the caretaker of a home), she had to live with a man in this era. When her only brother is getting married his bride makes it clear that Sarah is no longer welcome. This means Sarah must find another man to live with. Logically, this is a husband. So, she turns to an ad in the paper for a bride. Now, this is common practice during this time. So, that does not surprise me. But her leaving everything she loved so far behind… I can’t even imagine. A journey from Maine to Wyoming to meet someone you’ve never met and possibly elect to spend the rest of your life with them requires a bravery I don’t believe I possess.
Sarah is compelling as someone adjusting to a new life. Anna and Caleb both want her to stay– Sarah is fun and adventurous and creative and proud. She is everything the children want in a mother, without replacing their true birth mother.And Papa is obviously smitten with her. But everyone in their tiny family fears Sara will not enjoy their time together, and this trial will end with Sarah returning home.
“I could get sick and make her stay here,” said Caleb.
“We could tie her up.”
And Caleb began to cry, and I took him inside the barn where we could both cry.
Sarah’s potential departure is really the focal point of the book. In a very traditional way, we don’t see a lot of relationship development, but this was a different era. Instead, we focus on how her departure would affect Anna, Caleb, and Papa. And we also, very subtly, get to see how being far from home affects Sarah. We get to see subtle shifts in mood and facial expression through Anna’s observant eyes. As a child, I doubt I would have recognized those in the writing, but as an adult, they were essential to my enjoyment and understanding. Yet, all I could think of was how challenging it must be for Sarah to keep a strong face around the children.
Sarah, Plain and Tall is simple, as expected for a children’s story. Yet, this Newbery Award Winner contains the grace and wisdom appropriate for adult novels. It’s beautiful and clearly describes a tense and heartwarming story. If you haven’t read it yet, do so.