Study Guide

Sarah, Plain and Tall Themes

By Patricia MacLachlan

  • Family

    In Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Wittings are desperately looking for someone to fill a hole in their family—and they're hoping that a woman named Sarah Wheaton will be the one to make them complete. Jacob Witting has placed an ad for a mail order bride, and his children, Anna and Caleb, look forward to the presence of a mother figure in their lives. So when Sarah, a woman who responds to Jacob's ad, agrees to come for a visit to see how she likes life with the Wittings, everyone is nervous and deeply invested. After all, there's nothing more serious than the task of building a family, and that's exactly what the Wittings and Sarah are trying to do.

    Questions About Family

    1. Do you think Anna and Caleb both miss their birth mother? Are there any differences in their feelings about their birth mom? If so, how does this affect them?
    2. Why hasn't Jacob remarried before now?
    3. How does Sarah fit into the Witting family? Give examples from the book to support your answer.
    4. Do you think Anna and Caleb see Sarah as a mother? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although Caleb's never known what it's like to have a mother, he still feels that absence in his life and wants his father to remarry again.

    Sarah comes to visit the Witting family as a complete stranger, but by the end of the book she's an integral part of the family.

  • The Home

    When Sarah joins the Witting family in Sarah, Plain and Tall, she isn't just there to fulfill the role of wife and stepmother—she's there to help them make their little house and farm into a real home. Even though their house is small and far away from any neighbors or towns, the Witting family finds a great deal of comfort and takes pride in their little house on the prairie. When Sarah arrives, she works to make things even homier, drying flowers so they'll have color in the house throughout the winter and drawing pictures of the sea to hang around. Most importantly, she spends time with Jacob and the children so they feel like a complete family. Aw.

    Questions About The Home

    1. Why is Caleb so worried that their house is too small for Sarah? Find some specific examples from the text to work with.
    2. What does Sarah miss the most about Maine? How can you tell this is what she misses most?
    3. Do you think Sarah feels like the Witting family house is her home by the end of the book? Why or why not? Give evidence from the book to support your argument.

    Chew on This

    Anna hasn't felt like her family's house is a home since her mother died—but when Sarah comes to live with them, it starts to feel more like a home again.

    Although Sarah considers Maine her true home throughout most of the book, by the end she recognizes the Midwest—and the Wittings—as her new home and family.

  • Isolation

    In Sarah, Plain and Tall, Sarah Wheaton is happy to be with the Witting family, but she also misses her own home desperately. When she travels to the prairie to meet Jacob and his kids, she's coming to a place where she has no friends or family. Anna and Caleb can tell how lonely Sarah is, and they worry that this will cause her to leave them alone—which would create a void in their family (again). Their neighbor Maggie was also a mail order bride and commiserates with Sarah over how hard it is to leave home and start over somewhere new; she also offers friendship so that Sarah doesn't feel so alone in all of this, though. Phew.

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Why does Sarah feel so lonely when she first comes to stay with the Wittings? How does she show it?
    2. Has time made Maggie forget about her old life in Tennessee? Why or why not?
    3. How does Anna feel in the absence of her mother? What does she miss?
    4. Why does Sarah choose to leave her family and home when she loves them so much? Does this contribute to her feelings of isolation? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although Caleb never leaves Sarah's side after she arrives, she still feels lonely and isolated because she's so far away from her family and the ocean.

    Anna knows that if Sarah leaves, their house will feel unbearably empty and lonely because she's experienced this before, back when her mother died.

  • Fear

    Anna and Caleb are completely thrilled that they might be getting a new mother in Sarah, Plain and Tall, but their anticipation also means that they're terrified things might not work out. When Sarah comes to stay with them for a trial run, their anxiety level skyrockets as they read into every little sign and thing that she says—hoping to get some hint as to what her decision will be. Caleb, who's younger and more emotional, has an especially hard time keeping his fears and worries in check. It's scary to imagine that the woman he's come to love as a mother might waltz out of their lives.

    Questions About Fear

    1. Why is Caleb so scared that Sarah will leave? What does he stand to lose? What does he stand to gain by her staying?
    2. Is Jacob afraid that Sarah will leave and never come back? Why or why not? How can you tell?
    3. How does the family react when the big squall hits their farm?

    Chew on This

    Even though Anna and Caleb are excited by Sarah's arrival and come to adore her, they're still always terrified she'll decide to leave them.

    Sarah isn't afraid of learning new things, fixing roofs, or running out into storms because she's already done the scariest thing ever: leaving behind her family and hometown to come live with a man she's only written to.

  • Sacrifice

    When Sarah comes to join the Witting family in Sarah, Plain and Tall, it's not a complete walk in the park. After all, she's not going off to marry some prince in a foreign land where she'll live a life of luxury. Nope, Sarah has to leave behind her family and beloved ocean in order to come to the prairie land and join the family of a hardworking farmer. Sarah's decision—to stay with the Witting family or to return to her hometown—is all the more difficult because she'll have to give something up either way. There's sacrifice involved that she has to weigh in order to figure out which is the better decision.

    Questions About Sacrifice

    1. What does Sarah miss the most about Maine? How do you think this will change over time?
    2. Why doesn't Sarah leave the Witting family in the end? Do you think this is the right choice? Why or why not?
    3. How does Sarah feel about living so far away from the ocean? Is it all bad?

    Chew on This

    Anna's just as worried and scared about Sarah's decision as Caleb is, but she hides her true feelings in order to offer her little brother comfort and a shoulder to cry on.

    Although Sarah will always miss the ocean and her brother, she decides to give these things up in order to stay with the Witting family.

  • Happiness

    Ah, the pursuit of happiness. In Sarah, Plain and Tall, the Witting family and Sarah Wheaton are both trying out their new relationship to see if they can bring each other happiness in the form of family. When Sarah answers Jacob's ad for a wife, she obviously wants to see if she can see herself as a part of his family. And even though she's super lonely and uncertain when she first comes to their home, Sarah does end up finding happiness with the Witting family, while bringing happiness into their lives, too. The Wittings even start to sing again, something they haven't done since Anna and Caleb's mother died.

    Questions About Happiness

    1. Why haven't Jacob and the kids sung in so long? Be specific, please.
    2. What about the Midwest makes Sarah happy? What makes her sad?
    3. How does Sarah bring happiness into the Witting family? How do the Wittings bring happiness to Sarah? What similarities and differences do you notice?
    4. Is Maggie happy in her Midwestern home? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    When Sarah arrives, Jacob and the children start to sing again for the first time in a long while, which just shows how happy they are now that she's with them.

    Jacob manages to take away some of Sarah's homesickness by fixing up a "dune" for her out of hay—and the gesture makes her laugh and smile and realize she can be at home here.

  • Choices

    A great deal of the suspense in Sarah, Plain and Tall revolves around Sarah's decision to either stay or leave the Witting family. Obviously, there's a lot riding on this particular decision, since staying would involve marrying Jacob and making the prairie her home for good, instead of returning to her beloved seaside hometown. In particular, Anna and Caleb are super anxious about Sarah's decision-making process and watch her closely for any sign of her decision. When Sarah finally announces that she'll stay at the end, it's a huge relief. Everyone can relax at long last.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Why does Sarah need a whole month to make her decision? Does that seem like a long or short time to you? Why?
    2. Is Jacob anxious about Sarah's decision at all? Why or why not? How can you tell?
    3. Why are Caleb and Anna so stressed out about Sarah's decision? Are their reasons the same or are there some differences?
    4. Do you think the kids can actually do anything to impact Sarah's decision? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Throughout the book, Sarah's decision to stay or go hangs over the Witting family, and it's only when she makes up her mind that they can finally relax and truly enjoy time together as a family.

    Although Jacob's the one looking for a wife, he lets his children write to Sarah and decide to invite her to come because he knows that this is more of a family decision than an individual one.

  • Man and the Natural World

    Sarah, Plain and Tall takes place in the Midwest, and the characters are deeply connected to the natural world and the plains that surround them. Jacob Witting and his children know all about the land because they own a farm, and they're constantly battling the elements, including surprise squalls and long, cold winters. When Sarah comes to join them, she has to get used to this strange landscape, which is completely foreign to her. She also has to grapple with the fact that there aren't familiar elements of the natural world around her—like the sea and sand dunes.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What does Jacob do for a living? How does he keep his farm running?
    2. Do Anna and Caleb spend a lot of time outdoors? Why or why not?
    3. How does Sarah react to the prairie when she arrives? Does this change over time? If so, how?
    4. How do the Wittings and Sarah combat the effects of the squall that suddenly appears? What does this show about their relationship to nature?

    Chew on This

    When Sarah comes to visit the Witting family, she isn't just getting to know Jacob, Anna, and Caleb—she's also learning about and immersing herself in this new landscape.

    Although life on the prairie can be pretty brutal with the squalls and cold winters, Anna loves her home and even enjoys the snow because it's all a part of the natural personality of the Midwest.

  • Contrasting Regions

    In Sarah, Plain and Tall, Sarah's constantly comparing where she comes from—a seaside town in Maine—to her new home in the Midwest. The two places are so different that she can't help but miss her old life and the view of the ocean. She finds the flat plains and lack of water foreign, and she has a hard time getting used to where the Wittings live. This vast difference between the two places is also what leads to her uncertainty about whether she should stay with the Witting family or go back to Maine—which is the main source of tension in the book.

    Questions About Contrasting Regions

    1. Is the Midwest completely different from Maine? Why or why not? Give specific examples to support your answer.
    2. What does Sarah miss about living in Maine? What does this tell you about her character?
    3. How does Sarah feel about where the Witting family lives? What does she grow to like about it? Is there anything she dislikes? If so, what?

    Chew on This

    Because Anna and Caleb have never left the Midwest, Sarah tries her hardest to tell them all about her hometown and the sea—through descriptions, drawings, and even seashells that she brings with her.

    Throughout the book, the change that Sarah seems to have the hardest time with is how different the landscape is in the Midwest compared to Maine, and this is what causes much of her indecision about staying.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    In Sarah, Plain and Tall, Anna and Caleb aren't the kind of children who long for magical powers or to go to wizarding school. Instead, they just dream of having a mother figure in their lives—one who will take care of them and bring joy and warmth into their little house on the prairie. When their father places an ad in the newspaper for a new wife, the kids put all of their hopes and dreams in Sarah, the woman who responds and then comes to stay with them. Throughout the book, it's clear that Anna and Caleb hope Sarah will choose to stay with them in order to fulfill their dreams of a happy, complete family.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. What about Sarah makes the Witting children think she'd be a perfect addition to their family?
    2. How does Caleb envision a mother should act? Is his view different than Anna's? If so, how and why?
    3. Does Sarah come to the Midwest with dreams of romance and intrigue? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Caleb's never had a mother in his life, so he latches on to the dream of Sarah becoming his new maternal figure with great tenacity—and is terrified that it might not come true.

    Sarah doesn't come to the Midwest with dreams of riches or romance; she just wants to find a family that she can love and feel accepted by, and she discovers that in the Witting family.