Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Three Novels by Patricia MacLachlan

I don't know why I had never read anything by Patricia MacLachlan. Sarah, Plain and Tall, which won a Newbery in 1986, is one that I've meant to read for ages. Anyway, I made up for the lack by reading three in a row: Sarah, Plain and Tall; Baby; and Journey. All of them are lovely stories aimed at readers in elementary school.

Sarah, Plain and Tall is about a mail order bride who travels from Maine to meet, and possibly marry, a widower with two children on a prairie frontier farm. Sarah demonstrates her backbone from the start. When the father states that Sarah's cat will be a welcome mouser in the barn, she adds pointedly that the cat will also keep mice away in the house. Sarah was willing to learn new things, she worked hard and she also found time to play and to appreciate beauty; I loved her as much as the children did. They want very much for her to stay and be their new mother, but it is evident how much Sarah misses her home by the sea. A memorable story told in only 58 pages.

Baby is about a family living on an island. The youngest child died at birth, but the parents won't talk about him with their older child, Larkin. That autumn, a year-old baby is left on their doorstep. They care for Sophie until spring, when the mother returns for her. Again, MacLachlan has created some wonderful characters dealing with a momentous event. In 122 pages, emotional healing is sweetly demonstrated. A sophisticated (for young readers) literary technique is also used: Sophie's fragmented memories of the time she spent on the island introduce some of the chapters. Sophie's return 10 years later made a very satisfying conclusion.

In Journey, once again MacLachlan explores the theme of abandonment. A mentally ill mother leaves her two children with their grandparents. Journey, the youngest, is especially angry and the story is told in his voice, with violence even in the landscape imagery.

"Mama named me Journey. Journey, as if somehow she wished her restlessness on me. But it was Mama who would be gone the year that I was eleven -- before spring crashed onto our hillside with explosions of mountain laurel, before summer came with the soft slap of the screen door, breathless nights, and mildew on the books."

All three novels are timeless and deserve their continued popularity. MacLachlan has written many more books for children and she has a new fan: me.

Link to radio discussion of MacLachlan's work (thanks to Claire).


Anonymous said...

Me too! And for an enthusiastic discussion of MacLachlan's work by the NZ writer Kate de Goldi, you can listen to the podcast at
- there are a number on that page, so search for 'plain and tall'.

(Yes, Lindy, I know you've listened to it!)

Claire, NZ

Lindy said...

Claire, thanks for the link. I've added it to the main body of the blog.