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Volume VIII Number 10 . . . . January 18, 2002
At eleven years of age, Sarah Duncan has just suffered the death of her father. Dennis Duncan, well-respected surgeon for the small town of Wheaton, Minnesota, has been the victim of reckless driving by one of the community's known drunkards. And he has left a young family and a wife expecting another child. Death always precipitates change for a family, and for Sarah, there is the additional burden of her father's final words: "Sarah's got to be something . . . something grand," . . . "An artist, maybe . . . wonderful." Children often take things very literally, and Sarah takes this as a calling, a vocation, and a purpose to which she will dedicate herself. She applies herself diligently to the study of art, but after some years, she faces the difficult reality that, although she is proficient, she has reached the limits of her talents and will never be brilliantly successful as a painter. So focused is she on fulfilling, quite literally, her father's death-bed wish that she be an artist, that she overlooks her true talent: her skill and artistry at the piano.
It takes years before Sarah finally gives up drawing lessons to devote herself totally to her musical studies. But when she does, it becomes quickly apparent that her father's hopes will be fulfilled in the prospect of a career as a concert pianist. Along the way, she experiences the daily crises that all families face, graduates from high school, attends college, falls in love, and becomes engaged to a handsome and talented young man who dies as a member of the American forces in Europe during World War I. And the book ends on a hopeful note: another handsome young man has appeared, America is entering the twenties, and Sarah's concert career is poised on the brink of success.
First published in 1949, Sarah was the first novel of Margueritte Harmon Bro, a midwestern American author whose life mirrors some aspects of Sarah's. As might be expected from a young adult novel of that era, the language is clean, sexual activity virtually non-existent, and Bro includes long descriptive passages appealing to romantic young female readers in the pre-television, pre-video decades. The daughter of an American pastor (Sarah's grandfather is a minister), Bro also has a decidedly Christian viewpoint, although she is never "preachy" or overly-moralistic. To no small degree, Sarah is a "period" piece, reflective of a kinder, gentler small-town America. In some ways, it reminded me of Margaret Laurence's A Bird in the House, and in others, of the later novels from L. M. Montgomery's Anne books, although Laurence's work is a tighter, better-written work, I think.
I would have enjoyed this book much more when I was 13 and closer to Sarah's age at the start of the novel; my reading tastes have changed greatly over the years, and I need something a bit grittier, even in young adult novels. But, I think that this book has an audience amongst young women - it is definitely for a reader who will persevere with a longer book than is typical for most YA novels, who enjoys in-depth character delineation, and who has a bit of a romantic outlook. Recommended for senior high collections, although read the book first so that you know the audience to whom it will appeal.
Joanne Peters is a teacher-librarian at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, MB.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.