More Pacific Northwest biography: Betty MacDonald

MacDonald is perhaps best known now for her Mrs. PiggleWiggle books, not least because they’ve stood the test of time; kids still whine about going to bed, fuss about eating, refuse to clean their rooms, tattle, bully and all the things for which the children in the Mrs. PiggleWiggle tales were taken to task. What parent wouldn’t want a neighbor able to solve their children’s issues with a trenchant bit of practicality or amusing magic?

I suspect that, these days, most people don’t know that she wrote four memoirs; the first, The Egg and I, about her four years struggling to acclimate to a chicken farm in rural Washington, is the best known even today. Not surprising, as it became a bestseller shortly after she wrote it and remained so for over a year. She did write three more, The Plague and I, Anybody can do Anything and Onions in the Stew about, respectively, her time in a tuberculosis sanatorium, struggling to make ends meet during the Depression and life on Vashon Island during the 1940s, after marrying a second time to Donald MacDonald.

That said, The Egg and I the one I like least, as it has always struck me as the one in which she is most overtly nasty about people and events in her life, though I can understand why; she was miserable on the chicken farm and ultimately divorced Bob Heskett after only four years. 65 years later, her descriptions of Indians are undeniably racist; they range from condescending to the inspiration for lawsuits, even in the 1940s…but then to put this in perspective, she was equally vicious about her Caucasian neighbors. Mrs. Kettle does at least come across as friendly, though no better than a well meaning bumpkin, but the rest of the Kettle family sounds like a group of mentally challenged mouth breathers. She skewers one neighbor with pretensions of culture in a chapter entitles “The Theatah…the Dahnce!”, and the rest fare little better1. (The only other person who she seems to like is the moonshiner, Maxwell Jefferson.)

The later three are a bit gentler towards life in general; indeed, The Plague and I provides a counterpoint to the sentiments about Indians in The Egg and I, as MacDonald befriends a Japanese girl and deals more kindly with the African American patients than others in The Pines Sanatorium do. However, I come away from this thinking “Thank God for antibiotics!”; in the 1930s there was no treatment for TB other than ‘lie still and wait for your lungs to wall off the infection’, and in many cases, the people with TB never did recover, having relapse after relapse. Anybody can do Anything, the third written but the second chronologically, begins as she leaves Heskett, the chickens and the isolation of the rural Olympic peninsula to return to her family in Seattle. The Great Depression has begun, and the family2 has crammed back into MacDonald’s mother’s home; reading between the lines, it’s obvious that the family was desperately poor, though the emotional support of the family and friends took the edge off poverty. Onions in the Stew picks up in 1942, as the author marries again and subsequently moves to Vashon. In many ways, I appreciate this last book the best, as I have family on Vashon now; trust me, some things haven’t changed. The roads are better, and phone service is a bit more reliable, but ferries still knock over the dolphins, rendering people unable to get off the island and storms still knock out the power for days at a time. Onions in the Stew has still the same snarky edge as the previous three, but it’s obvious (to me) that MacDonald was a lot happier at this time.

1you’ll have to read the book…
2the author’s mother, Sydney, the author herself and her two children, and her siblings for a total of eight

HistoryLink: MacDonald, Betty (1908-1958)
Tour of the places MacDonald lived in Seattle
Review of her books, in the Seattle Times
The farm on Vashon, now a Bed and Breakfast


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