My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge: SARAH, PLAIN AND TALL by Patricia MacLachlan

Scott O'Dell Award

Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction

This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 1986 winner, Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan. This middle grade historical fiction also won the American Library Association’s Newbery Award in 1986.

In the story, Anna, and her younger brother, Caleb, already love the spirited mail-order bride, Sarah, who has come from Maine to visit them and their father. The children hope Sarah will stay on their prairie farm, marry their father, and become their mother. However, Sarah, misses the sea, and Anna and Caleb fear she will leave them to return to Maine.

History Lesson:

Mail-order brides: I’ve loved frontier stories since I was a young girl, and a common character in many frontier stories is the mail-order bride. I liked the adventure and romance involved in such stories. I didn’t realize until more recently how terrifying it would be to be a mail-order bride.

As white settlers pushed into the American west, there were many more men than women. So men seeking wives would often place newspaper ads back East, and single women would send a letter, starting a mail correspondence with the suitor.

Some women might have been seeking the adventure and the freedoms available in the West, but I suppose most were caught in such horrible circumstances they were desperate enough to go west to marry a stranger.

Can you imagine the risks for both the men and the women? There was nothing to keep them from lying to each other in their letters. They could end up in a love-match, or in an abusive situation, dire poverty, family dysfunction, or like in Sarah, Plain and Tall, an isolated farm.

These mail-order brides weren’t bought, but it would have been an easy step to turn the voluntary matchmaking into trafficking/forced prostitution such as we see today throughout the world–and the U.S.

Writing Lesson:

A simple plot/spare detailsSarah, Plain and Tall is an example of a short, simple novel that packs an emotional wallop. The plot is simple–the children love Sarah and want Sarah to be their mother, but Sarah misses the sea.

MacLachlan didn’t pad the story with unnecessary details. She didn’t state the exact location or the exact time period. All we know is that it takes place on a farm on the prairie in the American West, probably in the late 1800s.

Most of the descriptive details are about the animals and landscape of the prairie, showing Anna’s (and MacLachlan’s) love for the prairie, but also showing the contrast of the prairie to the sea, which Sarah loves.

The lack of other details focuses our attention onto the prairie, the sea, the relationships between the children, their father, and Sarah, and shows the great emotional stakes involved, especially for the children, if Sarah leaves.

For more info, see:

Mail-order brides

Patricia MacLachlan, profile by Through the Looking Glass Children’s Book Reviews

Patricia MacLachlan, interview by Publisher’s Weekly

Join me November 24 to talk about my next challenge book, the 2004 Scott O’Dell Award winner, The River Between Us by Richard Peck.

Do you have any mail-order brides in your ancestry? Do you know their stories? What other books have you read that might be called simple, yet touch on a deep emotional need, such as the yearning for a mother?


  1. Amy Houts

    I remember loving this book when I read it many years ago. Have you seen the movie? Thanks for reminding me about this book. Have you read The Hundred Dresses? It touches on the deep emotional need to be accepted by your peers.

    • Deb Watley

      I saw the movie years ago and only remember bits. Thanks for the suggestion of The Hundred Dresses! I haven’t read it, so I looked it up. The story sounds wonderful–and heartbreaking–and so contemporary for a 70 year old book. I’m going to find a copy of it.

  2. Deb Watley

    Amy, I think Wanda is a creative and wonderfully forgiving girl! Maddie is such a realistic kid. And the story shows that bullying and learning how to be a real friend are things every kid has had to deal with.

    • Amy Houts

      So you’ve read it? (It’s been so long since I’ve read it.) It’s remarkable that a book written in 1945 is so timely. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the book.

      • Deb Watley

        I did. It was a lovely Sunday afternoon read! Eleanor Estes really tapped into some universal themes, didn’t she? I’ve never read any of her other books, so now I’m going to have to look them up. I’ve heard good things about The Moffats.

        • Amy Houts

          Yes, I agree that Estes tapped into some universal themes. The Moffats sounds familiar. I’m going to reread The Hundred Dresses and see if the local library has The Moffats. It’s been fun visiting with you, Deb!

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