REVISTING YOUR SIXTH-GRADE BOOKSHELF: Sarah, Plain and Tall

If someone wrote this book about me, it would be called Ashley, Fat and Talkative.

Nov 17, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

In 2011, my relationship of like, a million years, ended fairly abruptly.  I mean, it wasn’t really abruptly - we had been having problems for a few months, and I wasn’t really in love with him anymore.  You know how sometimes you think to yourself that you can just fake it til you make it?  I mean, I spent a long time of my life hating on brussels sprouts before I realized that I actually really liked them.
 
So that was essentially my whole plan for fixing my relationship.  Like, hey, eventually I’ll like you again, let me just figure out how I can make that happen.  Like my boyfriend was a cruciferous vegetable that I had been cooking incorrectly my entire life.  Instead of boiling, Ashley, you should roast and pair with copious amounts of pork.  OF COURSE.  
 
But I couldn’t fix it no matter how hard I tried, and eventually, I just gave up.  And that’s the story of a million failed relationships in this world.
 
I wasn’t really that sad about ending my relationship, to be honest.  My biggest issue was that I didn’t really want to have to go out on dates.  I wanted to find somebody I could slip into the spot that he left behind, just slide them on in there with easy-peasy manufactured intimacy.  It made me long for the olden days of quick courtships, where you traded a goose for a wedding ring or whatever.  
 
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What’s the equivalent of goose-for-wedding ring these days?  Butt stuff?

 
Which is pretty much what happens in "Sarah, Plain and Tall" by Patricia MacLachlan.  OK, there’s no goose.  But Sarah is summoned to the prairies by way of newspaper advertisement, asking for a wife.  The fall 2011 version of Ashley would have loved it.  
 
Anna is our narrator, and her mother died giving birth to her brother, Caleb.  Her father had yet to remarry, but he placed a newspaper advertisement and received a letter back from Sarah Wheaten.  
 
My current boyfriend said he remembered reading "Sarah, Plain and Tall" when he was younger and that he never used to think it was weird that you just write a letter and BAM, new wife.  But that thinking about it now, it’s kind of bizarre.  
 
“But that’s how we met,” I said.  “I mean, in a way.  You placed an advertisement on OKCupid and I wrote you back.  And then we hung out for like a month and bam, instant girlfriend.”
 
So yeah, ok.  Maybe it’s just weird because it involves the dying art of newspapers?  I mean, she’s not TECHNICALLY a mail-order bride.  Well, actually, I don’t know if that’s true.  I don’t think Jacob paid money for her.  I think he was just like “SWM ISO SWF to take care of my two kids and also maybe my barn” and Sarah was all like “Oh daaang, I’m a SWF and I might like barns?”
 
Actually, Sarah Wheaten says:
I am answering your advertisement. I have never been married, though I have been asked. I have lived with an older brother, William, who is about to be married. His wife-to-be is young and energetic. 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 I 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. And you.
Very truly yours,
Sarah Elisabeth Wheaten
P.S. Do you have opinions on cats? I have one.
 
Uhhhhhhh.  I want to marry Sarah Wheaten RIGHT NOW.  I have lots of opinions on cats, Sarah!  I have two!  
 
Sarah writes to Anna and Caleb, telling them her favorite colors (the colors of the sea) and how she likes building bookshelves.  Her cat’s name is Seal and she can keep a fire going at night and she’s not sure if she snores. 
 
These answers are good enough for Anna and Caleb, and they give their father their blessing for Sarah to come live with them.  Sarah writes back saying she will come by train, she will wear a yellow bonnet, she is plain and tall.
 
After she arrives, Anna and Caleb spend a large amount of time worrying that she is unhappy, that they aren’t good enough for her, that she wants to go back to Maine and she’ll leave them forever.  Break my heart, children, please.  These poor kids!  All they want is a mother, and they get a woman who could be one and they spend the entire time frightened that she’ll leave.  Therapy wasn’t really an option back then, I’m guessing.
 
After Sarah learns how to use the horse and wagon, she goes into town by herself.  Caleb says terrible things like how maybe Sarah will fall off the wagon and then be forced to stay there.  Or he’ll tie her up.  Or he could get sick and make her stay.  Yikes, Caleb.  I have concerns about your future marriage. 
 
But Sarah returns, bearing colored pencils in the colors of the sea, and she marries Anna and Caleb’s father and they all live happily ever after.  I mean, I guess.  The book doesn’t really go very far into the future.  It’s possible that they all got cholera or dysentery, or they starved to death.  We’ll never know.  
 
But it’s nice to think about this tiny family surviving in the prairie, flowers in the garden, watching Seal the cat chase after chickens, Anna and Caleb in love with their new mother.  That’s what I thought when I was a kid, at least, as the daughter of a single parent.  Who didn’t love the idea that you could write a newspaper advertisement and then suddenly receive a parent to replace the gaping hole in your life? 
 
In case I haven’t mentioned it, I’m extraordinarily glad I live in a time of therapy.
 
Re-reading this as an adult, however, I’m most interested in Sarah’s backstory.  
 
She says she’s never been married, but she’s been asked.  Asked by whom?  And she said that she’s always loved to live by the sea, but she feels a move is necessary.  In my head, she was asked by a fisherman deeply in love with her, but who was engaged to another woman.  I picture the two of them kissing ferociously on the dunes of Maine at midnight, his wool sweater damp with sea spray, her brown hair whipping in the wind.  Passionate words are exchanged, the fisherman swearing that he will leave his fiancee for Sarah, but alas, his fiancee’s father owns the fish market and if he breaks her heart, then he’ll never be able to sell fish again. I picture the fiancee’s father possessing not only the fish market but also a perfect handlebar mustache that he twirls in a dastardly manner.  
 
And Sarah is left alone in the wind.  She’s soon surrounded by preparations for her brother William’s wedding and of course the fiancee of her brother is giving Sarah the side eye, practically begging her to leave the house so she can put up whatever curtains she wants to and also so she and William can have loud, untamed sex in the drawing room.  Heartbroken, Sarah peruses the local newspaper and finds a newspaper advertisement asking for a wife and mother.  She scribbles off a letter and waits for her life to change.  
 
And isn’t that what we do during online dating?  I messaged my current boyfriend after getting drunk on a bottle of wine and browsing through pages of dudes on OKCupid.  I saw the goofy picture of him holding his chunky little pug upside down and accused him of blatant animal cruelty.  Over a year later and we live together in a window-filled apartment, and I am writing this very article in the sunroom of his parents’ house, the same pug wheeze-snoring on the couch behind me, and I can hear him and his dad downstairs yelling at a basketball game.
 
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If you’re havin’ girl problems, I feel bad for you, son.  But here’s a helpful hint: try getting a pug.

Honestly, I never thought my hastily-and-drunkenly-written animal cruelty accusation would bring me to the life I live today.  I wonder if Sarah thought her letter would even get read.  But here I am.  And there she is.  Plain and tall.