Study Guide

Sarah, Plain and Tall Quotes

  • Family

    "Did Mama sing every day?" asked Caleb. "Every-single-day?" He sat close to the fire, his chin in his hand. It was dusk, and the dogs lay beside him on the warm hearthstones. (1.1)

    The biggest thing that Anna remembers about her birth mother is that she used to sing—and that her singing made their father happy, too. This is a big part of what she misses about having their mother around.

    "And Mama handed me to you in the yellow blanket and said…" He waited for me to finish the story. "And said…?"

    I sighed. "And Mama, said, 'Isn't he beautiful, Anna?'" (1.15-16)

    Caleb doesn't remember everything about his mother, so he has to rely on stories told by Anna and Jacob. He especially likes to hear about how much his mother loved him… even though they just had a brief amount of time together.

    We ate Sarah's stew, the late light coming through the windows. Papa had baked bread that was still warm from the fire. "The stew is fine," said Papa.

    "Ayuh." Sarah nodded. "The bread, too." (4.18-19)

    Even though the Wittings are a bit shy around Sarah when she first comes, it's still nice to sit down and eat dinner as a family. There's nothing as comforting as a home-cooked meal.

    After dinner Sarah told us about William. "He has a gray-and-white boat named Kittiwake." She looked out the window. "That is a small gull found way off the shore where William fishes. There are three aunts who live near us. They wear silk dresses and no shoes. You would love them." (4.25)

    In order to join the Witting family, though, Sarah has to leave behind her own family and hometown—and that can be hard. She misses her brother and all her crazy aunts.

    Sarah brushed my hair and tied it up in back with a rose velvet ribbon she had brought from Maine. She brushed hers long and free and tied it back, too, and we stood side by side looking into the mirror. I looked taller, like Sarah, and fair and thin. And with my hair pulled back I looked a little like her daughter. Sarah's daughter. (4.34)

    Even though Anna knows that Sarah will never be her "real" mother, she still loves imagining that they look alike. She wants Sarah to be a part of their family so that they finally have a mother figure.

    Papa taught Sarah how to plow the fields, guiding the plow behind Jack and Old Bess, the reins around her neck. When the chores were done we sat in the meadow with the sheep, Sarah beside us, watching Papa finish. (6.2)

    Sarah starts becoming more a part of the Witting family and even takes on some of the responsibility of taking care of their farm. She's not just there as a tourist; she helps build their home, too.

    Rose and Violet fell asleep in the grass, their bellies full of meat and greens and biscuits. And when it was time to go, Papa and Matthew lifted them into the wagon to sleep on blankets. (7.45)

    When Matthew and Maggie come to visit, the Witting family and Sarah can see what will happen if she decides to stay. After all, Maggie came as a mail order bride, too, and she's comfortable with her family and in her new home now.

    "We," said Sarah.

    "What?" Papa turned.

    "We will fix the roof," said Sarah. "I've done it before. I know about roofs. I am a good carpenter. Remember, I told you?" (8.20-22)

    Sarah isn't interested in just observing the Witting family and how they work; she wants to be Jacob's partner. Because they live on a farm, this sometimes means rolling up her sleeves and doing some serious repairs.

    Papa said nothing. But he put his arm around her, and leaned over to rest his chin in her hair. I closed my eyes, suddenly remembering Mama and Papa standing that way, Mama smaller than Sarah, her hair fair against Papa's shoulder. When I opened my eyes again, it was Sarah standing there. Caleb looked at me and smiled and smiled and smiled until he could smile no more. (8.44)

    When the family takes refuge in the barn from the storm, Jacob shows physical affection toward Sarah for the first time. The children are absolutely delighted to see them getting closer.

    "Best to be home before dark," said Papa. "Driving a wagon is hard if there's no full moon."

    "Yes, Jacob."

    Sarah kissed us all, even my father, who looked surprised. (9.18-20)

    When Sarah leaves to ride the wagon into town, she kisses Jacob and the children as though they're her real family, and that's because she's decided to stay with them. This is her home and these are her people now.

  • The Home

    I looked at the long dirt road that crawled across the plains, remembering the morning that Mama had died, cruel and sunny. They had come for her in a wagon and taken her away to be buried. And then the cousins and aunts and uncles had come and tried to fill up the house. But they couldn't. (1.20)

    When Anna and Caleb's mother dies, their house is transformed from a home into a lifeless building. Even when a bunch of people show up to keep them company, they can't replace the warmth and love that made this house a home.

    The dogs loved Sarah first. Lottie slept beside her bed, curled in a soft circle, and Nick leaned his face on the covers in the morning, watching for the first sign that Sarah was awake. No one knew where Seal slept. Seal was a roamer. (4.1)

    Seal—in classic cat form—makes himself at home in the Witting house right away. And the dogs seem to accept the fact that Sarah is a part of their family and home now, even though she's just arrived. These critters are super adaptable, it seems.

    "To pick flowers," said Sarah. "I'll hang some of them upside down and dry them so they'll keep some color. And we can have flowers all winter long."

    "I'll come too!" cried Caleb. "Sarah said winter," he said to me. "That means Sarah will stay." (4.7-8)

    Sarah's insistence on picking flowers and making the house pretty is definitely a good sign. Caleb and Anna hope this means Sarah wants to stay in their home as their new mother. Fingers crossed…

    After dinner, Sarah drew pictures to send home to Maine. She began a charcoal drawing of the fields, rolling like the sea rolled. She drew a sheep whose ears were too big. And she drew a windmill. (5.3)

    Sarah still misses her home and her family, so she writes them letters describing the new place she's come to. She even adds drawings of all the interesting things she's seen and experienced.

    "There is ice on the windows on winter mornings," I told Sarah. "We can draw sparkling pictures and we can see our breath in the air. Papa builds a warm fire, and we bake hot biscuits and put on hundreds of sweaters. And if the snow is too high, we stay home from school and make snow people." (6.18)

    This whole place is new to Sarah, so she has to rely on the Witting family to describe what different seasons are like here. Anna paints a pretty delightful picture of winters. Even though it's cold, they still have a lot of fun—and Sarah can, too, if she stays.

    Matthew and Maggie came with their two children and a sackful of chickens. Maggie emptied the sack into the yard and three red banty chickens clucked and scattered.

    "They are for you," she told Sarah. "For eating." (7.6-7)

    Maggie was just as lonely as Sarah in the beginning, but now she's embraced her new home. She shows up with her family in tow and shows Sarah the ropes, guiding her on how to make this strange place feel like home.

    "My garden?" Sarah bent down to touch the plants.

    "Zinnias and marigolds and wild feverfew," said Maggie. "You must have a garden. Wherever you are." (7.26-27)

    Maggie's been through this before, so she knows that Sarah needs to make her own additions to the farm in order to feel like it's her home, too. She gives her plants so Sarah can start a garden.

    Sarah's chickens were not afraid, and they settled like small red bundles in the hay. Papa closed the door at last, shutting out some of the sound of the storm. The barn was eerie and half lighted, like dusk without a lantern. Papa spread blankets around our shoulders and Sarah unpacked a bag of cheese and bread and jam. At the very bottom of the bag were Sarah's shells. (8.36)

    Even when they're stuck in a barn, Sarah and the Witting family manage to make things cozy and fun. Sarah sets up a little picnic and even has shells to entertain the kids and to distract them from the storm.

    Seal jumped up to the porch, her feet making a small thump. Caleb leaned down and picked her up and walked inside. I took the broom and slowly swept the porch. Then I watered Sarah's plants. Caleb cleaned out the wood stove and carried the ashes to the barn, spilling them so that I had to sweep the porch again. (9.24)

    Anna and Caleb take good care for the parts of their home that Sarah has brought—like her garden and her cat. They want to make sure she returns to stay with them for good.

    We fed the sheep, and I set the table for dinner. Four plates. The sun dropped low over the west fields. Lottie and Nick stood at the door, wagging their tails, asking for supper. (9.40)

    The kids are paranoid that Sarah isn't coming back, but Anna sets a plate at the table for her anyway—because she belongs with them now. They should set aside a portion of dinner for her.

  • Isolation

    My father did not see her look, but I did. And I knew that Caleb had seen it too. Sarah was not smiling. Sarah was already lonely. (3.45)

    Jacob seems oblivious, but Anna and Caleb are looking for signs of whether Sarah will stay or leave. Anna is horrified to see that Sarah already looks like she regrets her decision when she first arrives at their house.

    She cried when we found a lamb that had died, and she shouted and shook her fist at the turkey buzzards that came from nowhere to eat it. She would not Caleb or me come near. and that night, Papa went with a shovel to bury the sheep and a lantern to bring Sarah back. She sat on the porch alone. (5.2)

    When Sarah first arrives at their home, she's still rather shy and isolates herself from the family. She finds a dead lamb and chooses to grieve alone instead of letting them comfort her.

    Our neighbors, Matthew and Maggie, came to help Papa plow up a new field for corn. Sarah stood with us on the porch, watching their wagon wind up the road, two horses pulling it and one tied in back. I remembered the last time we had stood here alone, Caleb and I, waiting for Sarah. (7.2)

    Standing on the porch with Sarah and her family makes Anna remember the last time that she and Caleb were out here—and how alone and yet excited they were as they waited for Sarah to show up. She doesn't want Sarah to go away because it would leave the kids alone again, without a mother.

    "You are lonely, yes?" asked Maggie in her soft voice.

    Sarah's eyes filled with tears. Slowly I stirred the dough.

    Maggie reached over and took Sarah's hand.

    "I miss the hills of Tennessee sometimes," she said. (7.11-14)

    Maggie shows up to meet Sarah, but she's also determined to make sure Sarah doesn't feel alone. She knows exactly how isolated and homesick Sarah probably feels and tells her that these feelings are normal.

    "I miss my brother William," said Sarah. "But he is married. The house is hers now. Not mine any longer. There are three old aunts who squawk together like crows at dawn. I miss them, too." (7.19)

    Although Sarah misses her old home, she knows that she no longer belongs there either. Ever since her brother got married and started his own family, Sarah doesn't have any place to call her own. She's completely on her own. Them's the breaks for women in this era.

    I looked out and saw Papa and Matthew and Caleb working. Rose and Violet ran in the fields. I felt something brush my legs and looked down at Nick, wagging his tail.

    "I would miss you, Nick," I whispered. "I would." I knelt down and scratched his ears. "I miss Mama." (7.21-22)

    Anna does understand how Sarah must feel, since she'd miss her family and pets terribly if she moved far away. But still, she wants Sarah to feel at home and stay with them. She doesn't want her to feel like she doesn't belong here.

    "We are glad you are here," said Matthew to Sarah. "A new friend. Maggie misses her friends sometimes." (7.43)

    Even though Maggie's been around for a while, she still struggles with being so far away from her hometown. That's why she's glad when Sarah shows up: She'll have a friend who understands what she's going through.

    Sarah walked slowly behind the wagon for a long time, waving, watching it disappear. Caleb and I ran to bring her back, the chickens running wildly behind us. (7.46)

    When Maggie and her family leave, Sarah totally misses them. Even though they've just met, Sarah feels a connection to Maggie; she's the only person here who gets what it's like to be from a different place.

    "Too quick," Caleb complained to me as we watched from the fence. He thought a moment. "Maybe she'll fall off and have to stay here. Why?" he asked, turning to me. "Why doe she have to go away alone?" (9.5)

    Caleb sure is paranoid. He doesn't like the idea of Sarah ever being alone because he thinks that she'll leave them when she has the chance. The idea of her learning how to drive a wagon absolutely terrifies him.

    Caleb and I watched Sarah from the porch. Caleb took my hand, and the dogs lay down beside us. It was sunny, and I remembered another time when a wagon had taken Mama away. It had been a day just like this day. And Mama had never come back. (9.23)

    Anna might be older and stronger than Caleb, but she also remembers the pain of losing their birth mother. This makes it way harder for her to watch Sarah drive away, unsure of whether she's coming back.

  • Fear

    "You are loud and pesky," I told him. But I was worried, too. Sarah loved the sea. I could tell. Maybe she wouldn't leave there after all to come where there were fields and grass and sky and not much else. (2.6)

    Caleb and Anna are already worried about Sarah leaving before she even gets to their home. They obviously both have a lot riding on her arrival—and the possibility that they'll have a mother again.

    "What if she comes and doesn't like our house?" Caleb asked. "I told her it was small. Maybe I shouldn't have told her it was small."

    "Hush, Caleb. Hush." (2.7-8)

    Anna struggles to provide a voice of reason for Caleb and assure him that everything will be all right because she's scared, too. She doesn't like the idea of Sarah deciding not to stay either.

    In a month's time the preacher might come to marry Sarah and Papa. And a month was a long time. Time enough for her to change her mind and leave us. (3.45)

    Although there's the possibility for great happiness at the end of this journey—in the form of a big prairie wedding—Anna and Caleb are more focused on their anxieties about Sarah leaving.

    "The roses will bloom in early summer," I told Sarah. I looked to see if she knew what I was thinking. Summer was when the wedding would be. Might be. Sarah and Papa's wedding. (4.10)

    Anna is determined to see the good signs, like the fact that Sarah is putting up flowers so there will be color in the house when winter comes. But she still feels uncertain and afraid of Sarah's decision.

    "It looks high up," he said. "Are you scared, Sarah?"

    "Scared? Scared!" exclaimed Sarah. "You bet I'm not scared." (5.18-19)

    Sarah's not scared of too much—after all, she's traveled across the country to meet (and possibly marry) a man she doesn't know. Jumping off of a hay dune isn't going to frighten her at all.

    Do not miss the hills, Maggie, I thought.

    "I miss the sea," said Sarah.

    Do not miss the hills. Do not miss the sea. (7.15-17)

    When Anna overhears Sarah and Maggie talking about how much they miss their old homes, she's frozen with terror. She doesn't want Maggie to remind Sarah of her hometown and what she's missing out on.

    "I can teach you how to drive a wagon. I have already taught you how to plow."

    "And then I can go to town. By myself."

    "Say no, Papa," Caleb whispered beside me. (8.13-15)

    Caleb thinks that by keeping Sarah at home all the time, he can assuage his fears—she won't leave them if she can't find a way to get out of the house. But he has to trust Sarah to make her decision, whatever it might be.

    "Why does she want to go to town by herself?" asked Caleb. "To leave us?"

    I shook my head, weary with Caleb's questions. Tears gathered at the corners of my eyes. But there was no time to cry, for suddenly Papa called out. (8.27-28)

    Anna wants to protect Caleb, but his constant questions set her fears and worries in motion, too. She wants to cry when Caleb starts asking about Sarah leaving them, because she fears the exact same thing. She just doesn't want to say it.

    A few raindrops came, gentle at first, then stronger and louder, so that Caleb and I covered our ears and stared at each other without speaking. Caleb looked frightened and I tried to smile at him. Sarah carried a sack into the barn, her hair wet and streaming down her neck, Papa came behind, Lottie and Nick with him, their ears flat against their heads. (8.33)

    The squall scares the children and animals, but Sarah and Jacob remain brave and calm—just like parents should. They settle everyone down in the barn and make it homey so the children forget their fears.

    "I could get sick and make her stay here," said Caleb.

    "No."

    We could tie her up."

    "No."

    And Caleb began to cry, and I took him inside the barn where we could both cry. (7.7-11)

    After Sarah rides off on the wagon by herself, the kids can no longer pretend they're not scared—they immediately start freaking out and crying because they believe she's gone forever.

  • Sacrifice

    It was hard to think of Caleb as beautiful. It took three whole days for me to love him, sitting in the chair by the fire, Papa washing up the supper dishes, Caleb's tiny hand brushing my cheek. and a smile. It was the smile, I know. (1.24)

    Because their mother dies after giving birth to Caleb, it takes Anna a while to actually love the baby. She feels like there's been an unfair trade for a while—like maybe she'd rather keep her mother instead of this brother.

    "A scallop," she told us, picking up the shells one by one," a sea clam, an oyster, a razor clam. And a conch shell. If you put it to your ear you can hear the sea." She put it to Caleb's ear, then mine. Papa listened, too. Then Sarah listened once more, with a look so sad and far away that Caleb leaned against me.

    "At least Sarah can hear the sea," he whispered. (4.3-4)

    From the beginning, it's easy to see what Sarah will miss the most if she moves in with the Witting family. She carries memories of the sea around with her everywhere; it's obviously one of the great loves of her life.

    "I wish I could touch a seal right now," said Caleb, his voice soft in the night.

    "So do I," said Sarah. She sighed, then she began to sing the summer song again. Far off in a field, a meadowlark sang, too. (4.44-45)

    Even the mention of the sea and her old life makes Sarah melancholy. Even the kids can tell how much she longs for the ocean—and how conflicted she is when she's trying to make up her mind about living here.

    "You are lonely, yes?" asked Maggie in her soft voice.

    Sarah's eyes filled with tears. Slowly I stirred the the dough.

    Maggie reached over and took Sarah's hand.

    "I miss the hills of Tennessee sometimes," she said. (7.11-14)

    Maggie and Sarah have both had to give up places they love—and the lives they lived there—in order to get married and move to the prairie. Even with time, it isn't easy to think about their old homes.

    "I miss my brother William," said Sarah. "But he is married. The house is hers now. Not mine any longer. There are three old aunts who squawk together like crows at dawn. I miss them, too." (7.19)

    In gaining a new family with the Wittings, Sarah has to give up the one she grew up with—including her brother and all those silly old aunts. It's a difficult trade, but it's one that she agrees to in the end.

    "There are always things to miss," said Maggie. "No matter where you are." (7.20)

    Maggie reminds Sarah that the transition to living on the prairie with a new family isn't a simple one. She'll always miss her hometown in some ways, but she'll also come to love this new home.

    Sarah smiled. "I had a garden in Maine with dahlias and columbine. And nasturtiums the color of the sun when it sets. I don't know if nasturtiums would grow here."

    "Try," said Maggie. "You must have a garden." (7.28-29)

    When Maggie gives Sarah new plants, she's also trying to remind her new friend that she doesn't have to give up everything when she comes here. She can also start something new—like a fledgling garden, with favorite flowers from home.

    "Today? Can we begin today?" asked Sarah.

    "Tomorrow is best," said Papa, looking worried. "I have to fix the house roof. A portion of it is loose. And there's a storm coming." (8.18-19)

    Sarah wants to learn how to drive the wagon right away, but being a part of a family sometimes means compromise. Jacob promises that he'll teach her tomorrow… as long as they finish fixing the roof.

    "We thought you might be thinking of leaving us," I told her. "Because you miss the sea."

    Sarah smiled.

    "No," she said. "I will always miss my old home, but the truth of it is I would miss you more." (9.50-51)

    Sarah misses the ocean, but she knows that she values the new family she's made more. Even though she'll be giving up her old family and home, she's willing to make this sacrifice for Jacob, Anna, and Caleb.

    Soon there will be a wedding. Papa says that when the preacher asks if he will have Sarah for his wife, he will answer, "Ayuh." (9.61)

    Although Jacob isn't a big talker, he can see how much Sarah is giving up in order to marry him. So he likes to remind her in small ways that he knows where she comes from—and that he'll incorporate elements from her old home (like the word "ayuh") in the new life that they build together.

  • Happiness

    "You don't sing anymore," he said. He said it harshly. Not because he meant to, but because he had been thinking of it for so long. "Why?" he asked more gently. (1.36)

    Caleb wants to know why his father never sings anymore. It's pretty self-explanatory to Anna, who realizes that her father has been mourning their mother's death. But if he finds a new wife, he might be happy enough to sing again.

    "One thing," I said in the quiet of the room.

    "What's that?" asked Papa, looking up.

    I put my arm around Caleb.

    "Ask her if she sings," I said. (1.52-55)

    Anna's happy that her father might be getting married again, but she wants to make sure this new woman in their lives will bring light and joy, not more sadness. She wants to know if Sarah sings.

    "What's that?" asked Caleb excitedly, peering over Papa's shoulder. He pointed. "There, written at the bottom of the letter."

    Papa read it to himself. Then he smiled, holding up the letter for us to see.

    Tell them I sing was all it said. (2.26-28)

    To Sarah's credit, she doesn't find Anna's query about her warbling skills bizarre. She just responds simply, putting Anna's mind at ease and helping her to look forward to Sarah's arrival.

    "We don't have this by the sea," she said. "We have seaside goldenrod and wild asters and woolly ragwort."

    "Woolly ragwort!" Caleb whooped. He made up a song. (4.14-15)

    Almost as soon as Sarah comes, the kids are up and singing again. She tells them all about the ocean and the strange plants they've never seen. She gets along with the kids really well… but will that be enough to keep her around?

    Sarah and Papa laughed, and the dogs lifted their heads and thumped their tails against the wood floor. Seal sat on a kitchen chair and watched us with yellow eyes. (4.17)

    Everyone is startled—but delighted—when Sarah and Jacob start laughing together. Even though they're still nearly strangers, they're finding common ground and enjoying time together.

    The sheep made Sarah smile. She sank her fingers into their thick, coarse wool. She talked to them, running with the lambs, letting them suck on her fingers. She named them after her favorite aunts, Harriet and Mattie and Lou. She lay in the field beside them and sang "Sumer Is Icumen in," her voice drifting over the meadow grasses. (5.1)

    Although Sarah's pretty homesick for her seaside hometown, she still enjoys getting to know the prairie and all it has to offer. The sheep even make her smile and start singing… which is definitely a good sign.

    She climbed to the very top of the hay and sat, looking down at us. Above, the stars were coming out. Papa piled a bed of loose hay below with his pitchfork. The light of the lantern made his eyes shine when he smiled up at Sarah. (5.20)

    Jacob isn't a very openly affectionate or exuberant man, but it's clear to everyone that Sarah's arrival makes him happy. When he looks at her, even the kids can see that he's a lot more content. Yay.

    "Fine," said Sarah. She lifted her arms over her head and slid down, down, into the soft hay. She lay, laughing, as the dogs rolled beside her.

    "Was it a good dune?" called Caleb.

    "Yes," said Sarah. "It is a fine dune." (5.22-24)

    Jacob can see how homesick Sarah is, and he doesn't ignore her loneliness. Instead, he finds ways to make her feel more at home—like creating her very own "dune" out of hay so that she doesn't have to miss the sand dunes of Maine so much.

    "Shoo, cows," said Sarah as the cows looked up, startled. She took off her dress and waded into the water in her petticoat. She dived suddenly and disappeared for a moment as Caleb and I watched. She came up, laughing, her hair streaming free. Water beads sat on her shoulders. (6.32)

    Anna and Caleb are pretty shocked when Sarah plunges into the cow pond, but they follow her because she seems so happy that they don't want to miss out on her swimming lesson. After all, what kid can resist a bit of fun?

    Papa said nothing. But he put his arm around her, and leaned over to rest his chin in her hair. I closed my eyes, suddenly remembering Mama and Papa standing that way, Mama smaller than Sarah, her hair fair against Papa's shoulder. When I opened my eyes again, it was Sarah standing there. Caleb looked at me and smiled and smiled and smiled until he could smile no more. (8.44)

    When the kids see Jacob being affectionate with Sarah, they're thrilled instead of grossed out. Caleb is completely over the moon—maybe this means he'll finally have the mother he's been missing his whole life.

  • Choices

    Papa might not have told us about Sarah that night if Caleb hadn't asked him the question. After the dishes were cleared and washed and Papa was filling the tin pail with ashes, Caleb spoke up. (1.35)

    Jacob might not have planned to tell the kids about his newspaper ad so early on, but when he hears how much they long for a mother, he has to give them some grain of hope. So he tells them about Sarah.

    "Sarah has said she will come for a month's time if we wish her to," he said, his voice loud in the dark barn. "To see how it is. Just to see." (2.17)

    Although Sarah is only coming to the Midwest for a test run, the kids are still beyond excited and filled with expectation. They really want her to fall in love with their family and stay forever and ever.

    "I think," he began. Then, "I think," he said slowly, "that it would be good—to say yes," he finished in a rush.

    Papa looked at me.

    "I say yes," I told him, grinning.

    "Yes," said Papa. "Then yes it is." (2.19-22)

    Jacob lets the children decide if Sarah can come visit because he wants them to have a say in his new wife—this way they don't feel like all of this change has just been dropped on them without warning.

    Sarah nodded. "There is always something to miss, no matter where you are," she said, smiling at Maggie." (7.44)

    Talking to Maggie helps Sarah realize that no matter what choice she makes, there will be things that she'll have to leave behind. That's the nature of making big life decisions: They're not always easy.

    "What shall we name them?" asked Sarah, laughing as the chickens followed us into the house.

    I smiled. I was right. The chickens would not be for eating. (7.47-48)

    Sarah's decision not to kill her new chickens gives Anna some insight into what kind of person she is—and how much love and life she brings to their home. She also seems to have a strange fondness for naming farm animals after her aunts. Ha.

    "Women don't wear overalls," said Caleb, running along behind her like one of Sarah's chickens.

    "This woman does," said Sarah crisply. (8.3-4)

    Sarah is the kind of person who does things her own way. After traveling all the way to the Midwest to meet her potential new husband, she's not going to let anyone tell her what she can and cannot wear. We like your style, Sarah.

    "Why does she want to go to town by herself?" asked Caleb. "To leave us?"

    I shook my head, weary with Caleb's questions. Tears gathered at the corners of my eyes. But there was no time to cry, for suddenly Papa called out. (8.27-28)

    Caleb's obsession over Sarah's decision to stay or leave doesn't just affect him; it wears Anna down, too. She's having a hard time maintaining her composure when Caleb insists on talking about it all the time.

    "Wait!" cried Sarah. "My chickens!"

    "No, Sarah!" Papa called after her. But Sarah had already run from the barn into a sheet of rain. My father followed her. The sheep nosed open their stall door and milled around the barn, bleating. (8.34-35)

    Sarah's decision to run out into a storm and save her chickens shows just how fearless and loving she is. It also shows how Jacob has come to care for her, and how he wants to protect her in stormy weather.

    "I could get sick and make her stay here," said Caleb.

    "No."

    We could tie her up."

    "No." (7.7-10)

    Caleb naively thinks that if they trap Sarah in their house like a hostage, she'll stay forever. But Anna knows that this is a decision Sarah has to make on her own, without being coerced.

    "I am loud and pesky," Caleb cried suddenly. "You said so! And she has gone to buy a train ticket to go away."

    "No, Caleb. She would tell us." (9.25-27)

    When Sarah drives the wagon off, Caleb is despondent and thinks she's decided to leave them. Anna tries to be more pragmatic and points out that Sarah would have told them—plus, she'd never leave her cat behind. Meow.

  • Man and the Natural World

    My favorite colors are the colors of the sea, blue and gray and green, depending on the weather. My brother William is a fisherman, and he tells me that when he is in the middle of a fog-bound sea the water is a color for which there is no name. He catches flounder and sea bass and bluefish. Sometimes he sees whales. And birds, too, of course. (2.3)

    It's obvious from her letters that Sarah's super connected to nature—especially the sea. She comes from a family of fishermen, so she's comfortable on the ocean and knows the names of all the sea life.

    Sarah came in the spring. She came through green grass fields that bloomed with Indian paintbrush, red and orange, and blue-eyed grass. (3.1)

    It's not just the Witting family that pretties up their home to welcome Sarah—nature seems to do her role, too. The flowers start blooming as if to make sure Sarah sees the best of the Midwest when she arrives.

    "But I've touched seals. Real seals. They are cool and slippery and they slide through the water like fish. They can cry and sing. And sometimes they bark, a little like dogs."

    Sarah barked like a seal. And Lottie and Nick came running from the barn to jump on Sarah and lick her face and make her laugh. Sarah stroked them and scratched their ears and it was quiet again. (4.42-43)

    Sarah isn't afraid of nature or wildlife, and she embraces the natural world and its inhabitants. She's even approached and petted seals as though they're dogs or cats. In fact, she says they basically are dogs of the sea.

    Sarah sat up. "Do you have lots of snow?"

    "Lots and lots and lots of snow," chanted Caleb, rolling around in the grass. "Sometimes we have to dig our way out to feed the animals." (6.11-12)

    Although the Midwest is beautiful, there are also pretty brutal winters to contend with. Caleb gives Sarah the cold hard facts about what it's like around here when it snows—and how they keep the farm afloat.

    "It blows the snow and brings tumbleweeds and makes the sheep run. Wind and wind and wind!" Caleb stood up and ran like the wind, and the sheep ran after him. Sarah and I watched him jump over rocks and gullies, the sheep behind him, stiff legged and fast. (6.23)

    Even though the winter and snow can be pretty harsh, Caleb's completely unfazed. After all, he's lived in this particular climate for his entire life, so he's used to it. He doesn't know anything else.

    "I can't swim," said Caleb.

    "Can't swim!" exclaimed Sarah. "I'll teach you in the cow pond."

    "That's for cows!" I cried. (6.28-30)

    Because there's no sea or large body of water around, Anna and Caleb have grown up without having to learn how to swim. But Sarah wants them to know how to navigate all the elements, and so she gives them an impromptu swimming lesson in the cow pond.

    Sarah loved the chickens. She clucked back to them and fed them grain. They followed her, shuffling and scratching primly in the dirt. I knew they would not be for eating. (7.8)

    Sarah's a sucker for all animals. She has a cat, adores the dogs, is delighted to meet the sheep, and refuses to eat her new chickens, instead giving them names and keeping them as pets.

    We planted the flowers by the porch, turning over the soil and patting it around them, and watering. Lottie and Nick came to sniff, and the chickens walked in the dirt, leaving prints. In the fields, the horses pulled the plow up and down under the hot summer sun. (7.30)

    All of the characters are accustomed to working with the earth. Jacob is a farmer, and the kids learn from him. They plant gardens, take care of animals, and even know how to ride horses.

    The rain came and passed, but strange clouds hung in the northwest, low and black and green. And the air grew still. (8.1)

    Because the characters know the natural world around them so well, they can spot the signs of an impending storm. Those low clouds hanging around could spell disaster… and they have to fix up that roof pronto in anticipation of the squall.

    "We ran outside and saw a huge cloud, horribly black, moving toward us over the north fields. Papa slid down the roof, helping Sarah after him.

    "A squall!" he yelled to us. He held up his arms and Sarah jumped off the porch roof.

    "Get the horses inside," he ordered Caleb. "Get the sheep, Anna. And the cows. The barn is safest." (8.30-32)

    When the squall finally hits, it's a big one. Jacob has the foresight to get everyone—and everything—inside the barn so they don't get battered by the wind, rain, and hail. Yikes.

  • Contrasting Regions

    Matthew, our neighbor to the south, had written to ask for a wife and mother for his children. And Maggie had come from Tennessee. Her hair was the color of turnips and she laughed. (1.47)

    Sarah isn't the only character who wasn't born and raised on the plains. Their neighbor Maggie is also a mail order bride who came from afar—worry not, though, she's grown accustomed to her new home.

    I have always loved to live by the sea, but at this time I feel a move is necessary. And the truth is, the sea is as far east as I can go. My choice, as you can see, is limited. This should not be taken as an insult. I am strong and I work hard and am willing to travel. But I am not mild mannered. If you should still care to write, I would be interested in your children and about where you live. (1.50)

    In her letters, Sarah is completely honest about how hard it will be for her to leave the sea. She doesn't mean to insult where they live, but she doesn't think anything can compare to living by the ocean.

    Your house sounds lovely, even though it is far out in the country with no close neighbors. My house is tall and the shingles are gray because of the salt from the sea. There are roses nearby. (2.11)

    Even Sarah's house in Maine is different from the Witting family home. The landscape shapes the shingles on the roof, and the kinds of plants that grow in Maine are different than those that flower in the Midwest.

    "That is very smart, too," said Caleb. He looked up at Sarah. "We do not have the sea here."   Sarah turned and looked out over the plains.

    "No," she said. "There is no sea here. But the land rolls a little like the sea." (3.42-44)

    Even though she's prepared for the change in scenery, it's still hard for Sarah to be so far away from the sea. She tries to find substitutes in everything—even the way that the plains roll.

    "In Maine," said Sarah, "there are rock cliffs that rise up at the edge of the sea. And there are hills covered with pine and spruce trees, green with needles. But William and I found a sand dune all our own. It was soft and sparkling with bits of mica, and when we were little we would slide down the dune into the water." (5.8)

    Because the kids have never been to the sea—or anywhere other than the place where they've grown up—Sarah tries to describe her hometown in great detail, attempting to paint a picture with her words.

    Next to the barn was Papa's mound of hay for bedding, nearly as tall as the barn, covered with canvas to keep the rain from rotting it. Papa carried the wooden ladder from the barn and leaned it against the hay.

    "There." He smiled at Sarah. "Our dune." (5.15-16)

    There may be no sand dunes in the Midwest, but Jacob tries to create an adequate substitute for Sarah anyway. He makes her a hay "dune" so she won't feel so sad and homesick.

    "'Dear William,'" Sarah read to us by lantern light that night. "'Sliding down our dune of hay is almost as fine as sliding down the sand dunes into the sea.'" (5.28)

    Sarah doesn't just try to bring the sea to the Witting family; she tries to explain to her brother what the prairie is like too. She wants to share both worlds with the people that she loves.

    "And is there wind?" she asked.

    "Do you like wind?" asked Caleb.

    "There is wind by the sea," said Sarah.

    "There is wind here," said Caleb happily. (6.20-23)

    Well, there are some commonalities between Maine and the Midwest after all. Caleb is delighted to discover one thing that Sarah won't miss out on by living with them: the wind.

    Sarah smiled. "I had a garden in Maine with dahlias and columbine. And nasturtiums the color of the sun when it sets. I don't know if nasturtiums would grow here."

    "Try," said Maggie. "You must have a garden." (7.28-29)

    Sarah might not be able to have the exact same plants in her new garden (thanks to the different climate and all), but Maggie tells her to grow one anyway. It will still be her garden, just a bit different than what she's used to.

    "In Maine," said Sarah, "I would walk to town."

    "Here it is different," said Maggie. "Here you will drive." (7.40-41)

    It's not just the climate and landscape that are different—Sarah is also used to walking into town from her house and having neighbors close by. In the Midwest, though, the homes are more spread apart and Sarah will have to learn how to drive a wagon if she wants to go into town.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    "Maybe," he said, his voice low, "if you remember the songs, then I might remember her, too."

    My eyes widened and tears came. Then the door opened and wind blew in with Papa, and I went to stir the stew. (1.28-29)

    Caleb so desperately wants to remember his mother—who died right after he was born—that it breaks Anna's heart. She knows that his dream of excavating his own memories of his mother will never come true.

    "No," said Papa slowly. "Not a housekeeper." He paused. "A wife."

    Caleb stared at Papa. "A wife? You mean a mother?"

    Nick slid his face onto Papa's lap and Papa stroked his ears.

    "That, too," said Papa. (1.43-46)

    While Jacob hopes to find himself a new wife, the children are more focused on what that means for them: They'll potentially get a new mother, one who can take care of them and keep them company during the day.

    Caleb read and read the letter so many times that the ink began to run and the folds tore. He read the book about sea birds over and over.

    "Do you think she'll come?" asked Caleb. "And will she stay? What if she thinks we are loud and pesky?" (2.4-5)

    When Caleb starts writing back and forth with Sarah, he's completely smitten. He loves the book of sea birds that she sends, and he hopes that she'll choose to marry their father—even though he's never met her.

    The next day Papa went to town to mail his letter to Sarah. It was rainy for days, and the clouds followed. The house was cool and damp and quiet. Once I set four places at the table, then caught myself and put the extra plate away. (2.24)

    Even Anna finds herself caught up in the excitement and anticipation of possibly getting a new mother. Before Sarah even comes to the Midwest, she's already setting an extra place at the table as though Sarah belongs there.

    I shook my head, turning the white stone over and over in my hand. I wished everything was as perfect as the stone. I wished that Papa and Caleb and I were perfect for Sarah. I wished we had a sea of our own. (3.49)

    Anna isn't stupid—she can see that Sarah is homesick—but still, she wishes and hopes with all her heart that Sarah will decide that being a part of the Witting family is the right decision… and even wishes that they had a sea to give her.

    "For the birds," said Sarah. "They will use it for their nests. Later we can look for nests of curls."

    "Sarah said 'later,'" Caleb whispered to me as we spread his hair about. "Sarah will stay." (4.31-32)

    Caleb looks for any sign that Sarah is staying. He hopes and dreams that because she says things like "later," she means to stay on with the Witting family permanently—and to become his new mother.

    We climbed the bank and dried ourselves and lay in the grass again. The cows watched, their eyes sad in their dinner-plate faces. And I slept, dreaming a perfect dream. The fields had turned to a sea that gleamed like glass. And Sarah was happy. (6.40)

    After spending a lovely day swimming with Sarah in the cow pond, the kids go home with their heads full of dreams of how life will be if Sarah decides to stay. It's definitely a charming thing to think about.

    "Ask if she's coming back," whispered Caleb.

    "Of course she's coming back," I said. "Seal is here." But I would not ask the question. I was afraid to hear the answer. (9.38-39)

    Anna tries to be the strong big sister and assure Caleb that Sarah will be back, but she's secretly worried that Sarah has left, too. She doesn't want to ask if Sarah is coming back because she's afraid of having her dreams shattered.

    "Blue," said Caleb slowly, "and gray. And green."

    Sarah nodded.

    Suddenly Caleb grinned.

    "Papa," he called. "Papa, come quickly! Sarah has brought the sea!" (9.57-60)

    Sarah still has her dreams of being by the sea, but instead of leaving the Witting family for Maine, she brings the sea to them, using colored pencils to draw the ocean and post pictures around their little home.

    When there are storms, Papa will stretch a rope from the door to the barn so we will not be lost when we feed the sheep and the cows and Jack and Old Bess. And Sarah's chickens, if they aren't living in the house. There will be Sarah's sea, blue and gray and green, hanging on the wall. And songs, old ones and new. And Seal with yellow eyes. And there will be Sarah, plain and tall. (9.62)

    At the end of the book, Anna knows that all her dreams will come true now that Sarah is staying and marrying Jacob. They'll actually be able to enjoy all these wonderful family activities together. Yay.