At around 60 pages in most editions, Sarah, Plain and Tall is a fairly short novel, but it would be an even thinner volume if published in the form originally conceived. Author Patrician MacLachlan had planned for her deceptively simple story to be told in the plainest of all forms of children’s literature. Those plans for Sarah’s not-so-tall tale to be told only through pictures eventually had to be put aside in order for a full evaluation of the deeper meaning beneath the apparently simple surface narrative to be made manifest.
The story of a “mail order bride” and her impact on a frontier family has its basis in a fact. Not just historical fact, but the personal historical fact of author MacLachlan. The novel was also stimulated by a sense of necessity engendered by a much more intimate sort of personal history. The character of Sarah and the story of her emigration from the Atlantic Coast to the frontier prairie is charged with the memories of MacLachlan’s mother who related stories of a true-life Sarah who moved from Maine to Wyoming.
It was a trip to Wyoming and the tactile sensation of feeling what it was like to live in a place where her father had actually been born in a traditional frontier sod house that brought the story of the tall, plain Sarah fully to life in the imagination of MacLachan. That compulsion was made imperative by the consequence of her mother’s supply of background information slowly become corrupted by the deleterious effects of the early onset of Alzheimer’s Disease. So, in effect, the writing of Sarah, Plain and Tall became a process by which the book—and especially the main character—transformed into an eternal mouthpiece through which Patricia’s mother’s memories could speak loudly and cogently to the world for as long as there are people who pick up a copy and flip through the pages.
Following the publication of Sarah, Plain and Tall, Patricia MacLachlan was awarded the most prestigious honor available to a writer of children’s literature in America: the 1986 John Newberry Medal from the American Library Association. The book also served as a launching pad for what has become a series of books charting the course of events of the main characters following the events which brings the narrative to a close. A highly acclaimed made-for-TV film adaptation was produced in 1991 starring Glenn Close and it too was followed by a series of films based on the book’s sequels.