Children’s author Patricia MacLachlan dies at 84

  • Patricia MacLachlan of Williamsburg was the author of the Newbery Medal-winning novel “Sarah, Plain and Tall.” She died March 31 at 84. John MacLachlan/HarperCollins

  • Artemis Roehrig— Artemis Roehrig—

Staff Writer
Published: 4/6/2022 8:48:20 PM

WILLIAMSBURG — Celebrated local author Patricia MacLachlan, who wrote the acclaimed children’s book “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” died at her home in Williamsburg on March 31. She was 84 years old.

“She was always true to herself,” said her son John MacLachlan of Williamsburg. “She never forgot where she came from.”

MacLachlan authored more than 60 books for children, which have sold millions of copies, with “Sarah, Plain and Tall” selling more than 7 million.

Perhaps her most famous work, it tells the story of a farmer whose wife dies in childbirth, and who sends for a mail-order bride from Maine to live with him and his two children out West.

The book won the 1986 John Newbery Medal and was later adapted into a 1991 television movie, starring Christopher Walken and Glenn Close, for which MacLachlan co-wrote the script.

“It’s just like the prairie,” said John MacLachlan, speaking of the book.

“There’s not a single extra word” in his mother’s books, he said, noting that she said the delete key was her favorite key.

John MacLachlan said his mother was writing during her last week of life.

He also shared how his mother wrote “Sarah, Plain and Tall,” as a way of preserving his grandmother’s memories, who was losing them at the time. He said that his grandmother actually knew a woman who was a mail-order bride from Maine and that years later he found out that the real Sarah’s name was Ella — something he discovered after he had named his first child that.

“What are the chances?” he said.

Like his brother, Jamison MacLachlan, of Plymouth, said his mother stayed true to herself, noting that she would speak to anybody and everybody.

“You would never know she was a famous author,” he said. “She would speak to the president of the United States pretty much the same way she would talk to her grandkids.”

He said that people were drawn to his mother, and that she would sometimes embarrass her kids and delight her grandkids with her commentary.

“She was able to live how she loved to,” Jamison MacLachlan said. “She doted on her children and grandchildren.”

MacLachlan’s husband of more than 50 years, Robert MacLachlan, died in 2015. She leaves behind John MacLachlan, Jamison MacLachlan, her daughter Emily Charest and six grandchildren.

Home on the prairie

Although she was a longtime resident of western Massachusetts, MacLachlan spent her early years in Wyoming and felt a connection to that part of the country for her entire life.

“I carry a small bag of prairie dirt to remind me of where I began — the prairie that I miss and still dream about,” she said in an interview published on the website Two Writing Teachers. “It is sort of like a charm from my childhood. I had a wonderful childhood with wonderful parents who were storytellers and educators. They loved and respected children. So, my little bag of prairie reminds me of them, too.”

John MacLachlan said his mother had two bags of prairie dirt, one of which was given to her by her friend and fellow writer Leslea Newman of Holyoke.

Newman said she got the dirt at MacLachlan’s request, and that she did so in heels with a spoon. She also said MacLachlan was delighted to receive the gift.

“It was worth the run in my stocking,” she said.

John MacLachlan said his mother would bring a bag of prairie dirt with her when she visited schools, and that the kids would love it. She would also bring her Newbery Medal, and let the kids pass it around to one another.

John MacLachlan related that at one point his mother lost her medal and theorized she lost it at a school.

“They issued her another one,” said John MacLachlan. “Then, later, she found it at home.”

Rochelle Wildfong, assistant director and a children’s librarian at the Meekins Library, knew MacLachlan for more than 30 years.

“It’s a big loss for this town,” Wildfong said.

Wildfong said MacLachlan was funny and “would always be making people laugh.”

She also praised her as an author, saying that “she really wrote in a way that children could go deep with her work.”

“She didn’t talk down to children,” Wildfong said. “She spoke to them.”

This also matches sentiments MacLachlan herself expressed when speaking against moralizing in children’s books.

“Among some writers there’s this ghastly notion that one has to teach children lessons,” she once told the Orange County Register. “That’s condescending and incorrect. It’s not what writing is about. You write to find out what you’re thinking about, to find out how you feel.”

John MacLachlan said that in some ways his mother felt that children were smarter than adults, and that in a lot of her books the children are wiser than adults.

“She had a great respect for children and the inherent wisdom of children,” he said.

He said his mother loved going to Williamsburg center to do her business, visiting the market, the bank, the post office and the library. He also said that when macular degeneration made it impossible for her to drive, she was saddened by not being able to get into the center of town as much.

“She loved driving,” he said.

He also testified to his mother’s sense of humor, salty wit, and how she would swear in a comedic manner while driving in the car.

“She didn’t use common profanities,” he said.

Wildfong cited “Sarah, Plain and Tall” as well as “Three Names,” and “What You Know First” as her favorite MacLachlan books.

As for John MacLachlan, he said that some of his favorite books from his mother were “The Poet’s Dog,” “The Iridescence of Birds” and “Lala Salama: A Tanzanian Lullaby.”

John MacLachlan’s late wife, Karen Zwick, did research for the “The Iridescence of Birds,” which is about famed painter Henri Matisse.

“Lala Salama,” meanwhile, was written after his mother visited him in Tanzania and met his eldest daughter for the first time.

“That book has great great sentimental value for me,” he said. “It’s a beautiful book.”

Jamison MacLachlan said that one of his favorite books is “Baby,” and not just because it was dedicated to him.

“That one really always gets me,” he said.

And he also cited “The Iridescence of Birds,” as a favorite.

MacLachlan began her writing career in her 30s, and Wildfong said that she was mentored by local author Jane Yolen, who helped her to get an agent.

Before writing became a career, however, John MacLachlan said, she would write stories to amuse her children.

“They were so good and they were so funny,” he said.

MacLachlan joined a writing group in 1977 whose members included Yolen, Newman and Ann Turner.

“Patty had a leviathan heart,” said Turner, speaking of her friend. “There was room for everybody in there.”

She said that in the group, they heard almost every book that MacLachlan wrote. And she said that MacLachlan was an intuitive writer who tapped into her childhood self when writing.

“I think she was so in tune with the characters she created,” she said. “She wrote authentically for children.”

Turner also noted her friend’s kindness, wit and profanity.

“She cracked us up,” Turner said, who also related how she could also read material that would make people get teary.

Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.
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