Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan

Jacob Witting, a turn-of-the-century Kansas widower with two young children (Anna and Caleb), places an ad in a newspaper advertising for a bride. He receives a letter from Sarah Wheaton, who lives in Maine. She comes to stay with them for a month, at the end of which she (and presumably Jacob) will decide if there is to be a wedding. The story is told from Anna's perspective, and she makes a lot of observations about the changes she sees in her father with Sarah around, as well as the worries she and Caleb share that Sarah will not stay after the end of the month. It's simply told, in an almost staccato fashion, and short - just 65 pages.

I first read Sarah, Plain and Tall in 1991 or 92, after seeing the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie with Glenn Close and Christopher Walken. I was eleven and had loved the movie (to the point of watching some parts over and over) and at the time was disappointed by the book - the characters felt less real, and in the movie Sarah has a lot more work to do to win the family over. In the movie, Anna and her father both have a lot of issues related to the loss of their mother/wife, and Sarah has what Jacob considers controversial ideas about the role of women. In the book, everyone seemed to me almost desperate for the experiment to work.

Reading the book again now, though, I feel differently. It's true that the movie characters are more complex, and there is a lot more actual conflict, but the book is sweet and has more depth than I recognized as an eleven-year-old. Nobody seems desperate to me now. It's a story about growing love, the vulnerability that involves, and also homesickness and establishing new roots. I am in some ways a twenty-first century mail order bride, having met my now-husband online and moved to a new state to see if the relationship would work. Like Sarah and Jacob's, it did! I understand Sarah's longing for her home and family in Maine, though, and was close to tears when she and a neighbor discuss homesickness and the fact that "there's always something to miss, no matter where you are." With lovely symbolism, they are having this conversation while planting a garden.

In the end, the movie really explores these things too - the screenplay was written by MacLachlan, so while the issues are slightly different, there's a reason the characters still ring true. I recommend both the book and the movie - they're good for different things. I give the book a 9.

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