Book Review: Looking For Betty MacDonald
The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I
by Paula Becker
University of Washington Press, 2016
“I hated chickens, I was lonely and I seemed to have married the wrong man” – so author Betty MacDonald quipped to an interviewer in the years of her fame, taking a subversive whack at The Egg and I, the 1945 runaway bestseller that made her overnight into the best-loved author in the America of her day. The book, which sold a million copies in less than a year (and earned its author an astronomical $25,000 in its first week), tells the highly – and hilariously – stylized story of the misadventures of Betty and her husband Donald MacDonald trying to run a chicken ranch on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. It flew off the bookstore shelves in a chastened postwar America, and it spawned a hit movie, a winning stage play, and innumerable book clubs – each of which, at some point or other, screwed up their courage to write a fan letter to the author, as Paula Becker tells readers in her new book, Looking for Betty MacDonald:
The mail system brought fans from around the world into Betty’s rural Vashon Island mailbox. Many letters to Betty begin, “Dear Mrs. MacDonald, This is my first attempt at writing to an author,” or, “Dear Betty MacDonald, May I call you Betty?” Betty felt familiar to her readers, like a friend.
The woman these correspondents so naturally wanted to call Betty was born in 1907 in Boulder, Colorado and moved around with her large, eccentric, often impoverished and unfailingly happy family, the Bards. Betty and her sisters were an exuberant fellowship, a key factor in the author’s life that Becker traces with sensitivity throughout their complicated adult lives. Becker was granted unprecedented access to the MacDonald’s archives and conducted extensive interviews with people who knew the author and the family, and she casts her book’s narrative as a reflection of the biographer’s quest: the search for the real woman behind the smiling facade of the public author.
The result is a smart and immensely readable portrait, taking readers through MacDonald’s life from early poverty, her marriages, her establishment of a welcoming household on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, and her crafting of a small shelf of books, from The Egg and I to her memoir about surviving tuberculosis (the improbably funny The Plague and I), to her popular children’s books starring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, to her picaresque tale of her adventures during the Great Depression (the again improbably funny Anybody Can Do Anything). Becker has combed every interview and profile, and her book veritably glows with MacDonald’s recaptured wit, a great part of which derived from her boisterous family:
Betty’s facility as a writer sprang partially from her skill as a correspondent. The Bards set the letter-writing bar high. “In our family when you write a dull letter everyone says, ‘What’s the matter with you, you poor thing? Have you lost your wits?’ Next time you work harder and make it amusing. And not by faking. They’d despise you for that. You have to give them the details that make a situation funny or interesting. In this family you’ve got to talk and write fairly sharply or admit you’re a dope.”
MacDonald regarded her sudden, enormous fame with a skeptical eye and was always ready with a wry commentary on the nature of literary celebrity. “A lot of people are ready to crawl on their knees over broken glass in order to be introduced to me,” she once said, “Then they say, ‘My, you’re much fatter than you look in your pictures, aren’t you?’ or ‘Whoever told you, dear, to wear bangs? They’re hideous.’” It’s enough to make even long-time readers of The Egg and I fall I love with her all over again. She was fond of saying that when she was sitting at the kitchen table on Vashon Island perched over her manual typewriter, she didn’t dream that she was “oozing out a best seller.” But The Egg and I has never lapsed out of print, and it’s every bit as biting and funny and delightful as it was when it first appeared. Reading it – or the equally remarkable The Plague and I – almost always produces in readers a strong sense of connection with the author, a strong feeling of gratitude. Thanks to Paula Becker’s exhaustive research and the compassionate, standard-setting book she’s shaped out of it, 21st century readers can meet a much fuller and more fascinating version of that complex, challenging, laughing woman. Readers of her books will still want to thank her, but thanks to Looking for Betty MacDonald, they’ll know her much better.