Thursday, July 03, 2008

Reader's Diary #373- Patricia MacLachlan: Sarah, Plain and Tall

In 1986 the John Newbery people, in a radical change of plans, decided to give their award to the children's book most likely to drive both kids and parents alike into a comatose-like state. (Don't bother looking for proof of this in Wikipedia as I'm sure my snarky comments will have been edited out by the time you get to it.)

Sarah, Plain and Tall is the story of a mail-order bride from Maine who goes to live with Papa and his two children, Anna and Caleb. The mother had died giving birth to the latter.

Before she decides to move to the prairies, Papa and his children start up a correspondence through letters. Caleb asks if she sings. Finally, when her mind is made up, she writes back, "I will come by train. I will wear a yellow bonnet. I am plain and tall [...] Tell them I sing."

Goody! When I read this to my daughter, who had just recently watched Mary Poppins for the first time, she suspected that the "plain and tall" bit wasn't exactly true. As did I. To be honest, I thought a mail-order bride would be full of crazy surprises.
But alas, MacLachlan's title could serve as its own blurb.

It's like she took Anne of Green Gables or Little House on the Prairie, weeded out all the amusing anecdotes, and replaced them with sentimental descriptions of weather and wildflowers. A hail storm and a hay slide are as exciting as it gets. The drama consists of Sarah missing the sea and the kids worrying she'll return to it. What child wouldn't find this enthralling?

Plus, it's depressing! Not just because of the dead mother or homesickness either. Even when it's supposed to have a happy ending (Sarah stays. Oh no. I've ruined it for you.), I didn't find it all that uplifting. Sarah spends so much of her time missing the ocean, learning to ride a horse, or tending chickens that I didn't sense any real connection to the children. Sure they were relieved at her decision to stay, but it seemed out of desperation to have a mother back in their lives. And Sarah just needed a place to be. Not as sweet as Hallmark would have led us to believe after all.

The good news? It's only 58 pages.


Nikki in Niagara said...

I've read this (like 10 years ago) but honestly don't remember anything about the plot at all. Guess it didn't make much of an impression on me either, eh?

Anonymous said...

I love reviews like this. Thanks for sharing your candid thoughts about the book. I remember my sister loved the movies, and all I could think was "blech!"

Bybee said...

Yeah, it was pretty flat. A real Kansas of a book.

raidergirl3 said...

Well I don't know how radical a change of plan it was. There are a number of mind-numbingly boring books. Books that parents think kids should read and enjoy, not ones they would actually enjoy.

Someone gave me Jacob Have I Loved when I was a teenager... zzzzzzz.

haha - a read Kansas of a book!

Anonymous said...

I remember reading this book in elementary school and really liking it. However, I remember absolutely nothing about the book. Even your description did not spark an inkling of rememberance. Did I even read it? I have to wonder now. I always wanted to pick it up again b/c I thought I really enjoyed it. After your review though I am thinking maybe I will forget reading it again and just stick with my vague, happy memory of it :)

What did your daughter think of the book?

Tracy S.

Anonymous said...

Possibly the movie wouldn't even be good without Christopher Walken.

But weather and wildflowers? What could be more enthralling?

Anonymous said...

No, no! Sarah, Plain and Tall is such a beautiful, sweet book! It's not high drama, just loveliness. It was a childhood favourite of mine and I still re-read it from time to time...