Sarah, Plain and Tall Summary

Patricia MacLachlan

Sarah, Plain and Tall

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Sarah, Plain and Tall Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan.

Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan is a story about a family searching for a mother. Anna and Caleb live with their father in a rural area of America. It’s the turn of the twentieth century, and life on the farm is challenging. The three of them are isolated, with their closest neighbors being at least a half-day’s journey away by wagon. Anna and Caleb had a mother, but she passed away several years before, while giving birth to Caleb. Caleb often asks Anna what it was like to have a mother’s love, and Anna is heartbroken by this question every time he asks her.

One day, their Papa tells them that he’s put an advert in the newspaper, stating that he’s looking for a new wife and mother for his children. He also tells them that he has already received a response from a woman named Sarah Elisabeth Wheaton, who lives on the coast of Maine. Despite the fact that Sarah loves her home, her brother has just married and Sarah wants to find a home of her own so that her brother and sister-in-law can enjoy married life together. Anna, Caleb, and Papa all write their own letter to Sarah. They want to learn more about her. She writes back and sends along a book about the sea birds that live near her current home, so they can learn more about it.

Caleb can’t put the bird book down, and memorizes it. He also refuses to leave Sarah’s letter behind, he carries it with him everywhere. Anna worries that if Sarah doesn’t come to marry their Papa, that Caleb will be heartbroken. Sarah’s next letter states that she will come to visit them for a whole month the following spring, and Caleb’s hope that she will become his and Anna’s new mother is strengthened. Papa tells them both that if the visit goes well, he and Sarah can marry in the summer. When she arrives, he goes to pick her up from the train station.

Sarah is, as the title of the book suggests, and as she wrote in one of her letters, plain and tall. Singing is one of her most beloved pastimes, and Papa joins her in singing one night for the first time since Anna and Caleb’s mother passed away. Their family dogs take to Sarah instantly upon meeting her, and Caleb also becomes quickly attached to her. He becomes like a shadow, following Sarah everywhere. He tells her all about their farm, their family, and himself. Because both Anna and Papa are shy, it takes them a little longer to get used to her, but they eventually do. As Caleb comes to care more and more for Sarah, as his potential new mother, he begins to worry that she’ll decide not to stay with them. Sarah loves the three of them, but she’s also homesick for Maine and the seacoast. Anna and Caleb endlessly try to make Sarah enjoy living on the prairie as much as she liked living beside the sea.

When Matthew and Maggie, the family’s neighbors to the south, come to visit, they tell Papa and the others that Matthew had placed an ad in the paper seeking a wife, and Maggie had traveled from Tennessee to be with him. Matthew’s life is once more filled with laughter and happiness, and she is a good mother to the two children he had with his previous wife. Maggie is a balm to Sarah in her homesickness, and helps her start a garden. She tells Sarah that she’s happy with her new family, even though she still misses home, and invites Sarah to visit her on the wagon whenever she likes. The following day, Papa teaches Sarah how to drive the wagon, even though Caleb is afraid Sarah will leave and not return.

Sarah drives away by herself the next day, having quickly mastered how to drive the wagon. Caleb and Anna cry, thinking they will never see Sarah again. Caleb convinces himself that she’s never coming back because the draw of living near the sea was too strong. When Sarah returns that evening, the whole family is thrilled. It turns out that she went to town, where she bought colored pencils in green, blue, and gray. She wants to draw with the colors of the ocean. Sarah tells Papa, Anna, and Caleb that she will stay and become a member of their family. She and Papa arrange to marry that summer and Caleb learns that he cannot force love that it must be given freely. He and Anna are happy to have a new, loving mother, and Papa is happy to have a new, loving wife.

Published in 1985, Sarah, Plain and Tall was adapted for the stage as a one-act musical for children, and ran off-Broadway in 2002. It was revived in 2004 with a three-week, sold-out run off-Broadway. In 2003, the show ran in Connecticut at the O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford.