Thursday, September 13, 2012

BBAW: Underappreciated books

With today's BBAW theme of promoting a book that in my opinion needs more recognition, my first thought was to write about Anthony Trollope. Before I started blogging, I didn't know anyone else who read him, and I felt like I was alone in a world obsessed with Charles Dickens. But now I've found a wonderful community of fellow Trollopians, some long-time readers and others just falling under his spell.

Instead, I chose someone born almost a century later, Betty MacDonald. Many people know her as the author of the beloved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, which I read growing up and which are still on my shelves. Much less-well known are her four autobiographical works, the first of which is The Egg and I. Published in 1945, it became an immediate best-seller and the basis for a movie starring Fred MacMurry and Claudette Colbert. No film could possibly do justice to this book, because it couldn't capture MacDonald's unique voice:

Along with teaching us that lamb must be cooked with garlic and that a lady never scratches her head or spits, my mother taught my sisters and me that it is a wife's bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work . . . [This] philosophy worked out splendidly for Mother for she followed my mining engineer father all over the United States and led a fascinating life; but not so well for me, because although I did what she told me and let Bob choose the work in which he felt he would be happiest and then plunged wholeheartedly in with him, I wound up on the Pacific Coast in the most untamed corner of the United States, with a ten-gallon keg of good whiskey, some very dirty Indians, and hundreds and hundreds of most uninteresting chickens.

Unfortunately all of these books include unflattering stereotypes of drunken and dirty Native Americans.

Before she got to the chicken farm on Washington State's Olympic Peninsula, MacDonald described her childhood in mining camps across the west and later in Seattle. In addition to her parents and her four siblings, the family included her paternal grandmother Gammy, "who wore her corsets upside down and her shoes on the wrong feet and married a gambler with yellow eyes." Each of the four books includes stories from her childhood, and it's a wonder she survived it. Her older sister Mary was constantly leading her into temptation, not to mention mortal danger, like the time she convinced Betty to slide down an old mining flume, which nearly dumped her headfirst into the mine itself.

When her marriage to Bob the chicken farmer ended, MacDonald took her two daughters back to the family home in Seattle. This was in 1931, in the deepening Depression, a bad time to be looking for work, but Mary convinced her that finding a job would be easy. In Anybody Can Do Anything, MacDonald related her adventures looking for, and then losing, job after job. Mary told her, "I'll always be able to find us jobs doing something, and whatever it is I'll show you how to do it." Mary's other motto was, "Just show me the job and I'll produce a sister to do it." MacDonald dedicated the book "To my sister Mary, who has always believed that I can do anything she puts her mind to." It's a fascinating picture of Seattle in the early 1930s, and of the working world. Like all four of her books, it's also a lovely portrait of a family:

It's a wonderful thing to know that you can come home any time from anywhere and just open the door and belong. That everybody will shift until you fit and that from that day on it's a matter of sharing everything. When you share your money, your clothes and your food with a mother, a brother and three sisters, your portion may be meagre, but by the same token when you share unhappiness, loneliness and anxiety about the future with a mother, a brother and three sisters, there isn't much left for you.

Seven years later, MacDonald was living in the family home with her daughters when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She spent the next ten months in a sanitarium, which she chronicled in The Plague and I.

By the time I had gone through my sixth cold, I noticed that I seemed much more nervous, that I slept badly and that I had a heavy feeling over my heart and occasional sharp pains in my lungs. I attributed the heavy feeling and the pains to my indigestion and my indigestion to my nervousness and my nervousness to my job . . . It never occurred to me that my complaints were symptoms of tuberculosis. (Actually they all were.) From Gammy's training, the movies I had seen and the books I had read, I thought that the only real symptoms of tuberculosis were a dry hacking cough and a clean white linen handkerchief delicately touched to pale lips and coming away blood-flecked.

She wrote in detail about the treatments she underwent and the condition of other patients, and this is not a book for the medically squeamish. I would not have thought there was anything funny about TB, but Betty MacDonald proved me wrong. Like her other books, it has truly laugh-out-loud moments, but it is also the most serious of her books. In the sanitarium she roomed with a young Japanese woman named Kimi. This was actually Monica Sone, who later wrote a book, Nisei Daughter, about her experiences with the Japanese internments during World War II. MacDonald apparently accepted Asian and African Americans without the prejudice that she showed toward Native Americans.

The final book of the four is Onions in the Stew, which tells of MacDonald's second marriage to Donald MacDonald and their life on Vashon Island. It is the most domestic of the books, and I think the quietest. Her daughters Joan and Anne were growing up, as were her nieces and nephews. Part of the fun of these books is seeing the connections with the later Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books, which are dedicated to them, "who are perfect angels and couldn't possibly have been the inspiration for any of these stories."

These books are classics, with some of the funniest episodes I have ever read. They remind me of Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons, and also of the Gilbreth family of Cheaper by the Dozen, but MacDonald's voice is uniquely her own. Unfortunately only the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories and The Egg & I are still in print, but it's well worth tracking down library or used copies. These are books to be re-read and treasured, and they deserve to be better known.


  1. Just checked our library's online catalog and found The Egg and I there. I loved the Piggle Wiggle books and did not know about her other work. Books by women about the American West keep stacking up in my TBR pile, Dorothy M. Johnson's stories, for example ("The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"). Thinking I might make this reading a priority next year.

  2. I didn't realize that Liberty Valance started out as a story, not a script. Other than Laura Ingalls Wilder, I don't think I've read any women writers on the West.

  3. I have The Egg & I, and The Plague & I, but have yet to read either of them... I know I will love them, especially after the mention of Shirley Jackson, so I had better just get on with it!

  4. I've never even heard of her and don't know how easy it'll be to track down any of her books, but they sound fascinating, so she's going on my list. Thanks.

  5. Simon, the humor is a lot broader here than in Shirley Jackson's books, I think - but much of it rooted in family, like hers.

    Anon., thanks for stopping by. If you have kids or still enjoy kids' books, the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books at least should be easy to find - they're great fun. But I hope you can find these four as well.

  6. Hi there, the October edition of Books You Loved is live. Here is the link Books You Loved October Edition Please do pop by and link in a post about a book you loved. Maybe this one? Cheers

    PS I am a follower of your blog. I know you have linked in before, too – which is great. Would you consider following Carole's Chatter back – or are you already?

  7. I'm very happy to link, I definitely love these books - and I enjoy seeing what others suggest.

  8. Betty MacDonald has so many fans around the world.

  9. She does, and for good reason! but so many people have never heard of The Egg & I, or the other adult books.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!