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A book that has a clear understanding of what is “real” is often thought to be a quality book. Although what is thought to be “real” is different for everyone, for me it is how easily I am able to relate to the characters in the book. If I can sympathize and understand what they are going through on an emotional level and can put myself in their shoes, I am more apt to enjoy the story. Narrative style and structure play a very important role here; because it is through these that we get a sense of what type of realism is being portrayed. For example, in Sarah, Plain and Tall, the realism displayed is emotional realism.
In Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall the narrative style is apparent. We know that it is the character Anna whose point of view this story is from. It is essential that it is told from her point of view, because the arrival of Sarah will ultimately affect her the most. We get a sense of the pain that she has undergone, as well as the over-whelming sense of love and pride she has for her family. As Anna explains, “…I didn’t tell him what I really thought. He was homely and plain, and he had a terrible holler and a horrid smell. But these were not the worst of him. Mama died the next morning. That was the worst thing about Caleb” (MacLachlan 4). It also reveals to us the tremendous amount of responsibility that is resting on her young shoulders.
In addition to the point of view, in what realm it was written is also important. Is it written as a fantasy, as a truth, or as a fable? Sarah, Plain and Tall was written as realism, meaning it has a feeling that it actually happened. Although we aren't directly told when and where this story takes place, we get at good sense of it by the descriptions of their everyday life. It is these descriptions that give the book its sense of realism. For example, in chapter seven Caleb describes plowing to Sarah: Papa needs five horses for the big gang plow,’ Caleb told Sarah. ‘Prairie grass is hard’” (MacLachlan 39). Despite the lack of an in-depth depiction, we still gain a feeling of what kind of life these characters led, as well as in what time period the story takes place.
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The narrative structure is the aspect of the how and why. For example, why is Sarah’s first appearance in the story in the form of a letter? “Papa reached into his pocket and unfolded a letter written on white paper. ‘And I have received an answer.’ Papa read to us…” (MacLachlan 8). This is the first glimpse we receive of Sarah. What is the significance of this? Throughout the story Anna and Caleb are worried that Sarah might leave them, because of her constant talk of missing the ocean. By her appearing in the letter first we are able to think more like Anna and Caleb, to doubt that she is really there; it’s almost as if she is a dream to them. Is Sarah really going to come, will she stay. We continue to ask ourselves these key questions while reading. Structure works in exactly this way. It is the entrances of key characters and timing of events that ultimately give way to the narrative style, in this case the emotional response of Anna, Caleb, and Jacob on the arrival of Sarah. In order to make a story feel like real life, you need to construct it so that the characters and events happen in an order that seems natural. This also causes us to stop and think more about how the characters are feeling during these events.
If we can understand how the characters are feeling, and where they are coming from, then we appreciate the work so much more. When reading we must also focus on the narrative style and structure, these important aspects help us to see and feel how the characters are reacting. Along with this we also need to pay attention to the turning points in the story. When we are able to connect to a character on an emotional level, we enjoy and get more from the book, which is exactly what Patricia MacLachlan was able to achieve in Sarah, Plain and Tall.
MacLachlan, Patricia. Sarah, Plain and Tall. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1985.