The plucky au­thor be­hind “Egg and I”

Look­ing for Betty Mac­Don­ald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Pig­gleWig­gle, and I By Paula Becker (Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton)

The Denver Post - - BOOKS - By Jen­nifer Reese

In 1945, a first-time au­thor named Betty Mac­Don­ald pub­lished a tart, smart and un­com­monly funny mem­oir of the rocky years she’d spent as a young woman on an iso­lated Wash­ing­ton chicken farm. “It still ir­ri­tates me when women say they pre­fer to live with­out run­ning wa­ter or elec­tric lights,” Mac­Don­ald wrote to her lit­er­ary agent. “I know it’s a damn lie.”

“The Egg and I” sur­prised every­one by climb­ing to No. 1 on the New York Times non­fic­tion best-seller list, where it re­mained for 43 weeks. Mac­Don­ald went on to write eight more books, in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar Mrs. Pig­gle-Wig­gle chil­dren’s se­ries. She died of can­cer in 1958 at age 50, leav­ing be­hind a body of work that has been largely for­got­ten. But read­ing it now, it is as in­vig­o­rat­ing and rel­e­vant as if it had been writ­ten yes­ter­day.

Paula Becker’s bi­og­ra­phy “Look­ing for Betty Mac­Don­ald” is an as­tute, af­fec­tion­ate and of­ten star­tling look at this sin­gu­lar Amer­i­can writer. Unavoid­ably, Becker’s scrupu­lously fac­tual ac­count of Mac­Don­ald’s life suf­fers be­side Mac­Don­ald’s own sparkling and highly cu­rated nar­ra­tives of the same events. But the book fills in cru­cial and some­times shock­ing gaps in her story, ren­der­ing Mac­Don­ald’s achieve­ments all the more ex­tra­or­di­nary.

Born in Colorado and raised in the Pa­cific North­west, Mac­Don­ald grew up in a big, com­pet­i­tive fam­ily where she learned early to shape ev­ery­day life into en­ter­tain­ment, a habit that would stand her in good stead. She mar­ried young and badly. Just how badly Mac­Don­ald never let on in her work, but Becker sets the record straight. Mac­Don­ald’s first hus­band, Bob Hes­kett, took his wife to live on the chicken farm she would later im­mor­tal­ize in her writ­ing. She had two chil­dren in two years while Hes­kett drank heav­ily and phys­i­cally abused her. Quot­ing from the di­vorce pa­pers, Becker re­veals that Hes­kett beat and kicked Mac­Don­ald, at­tempted to burn down their house and threat­ened “to dis­fig­ure plain­tiff so that no one else would ever care for her.”

The mar­riage de­picted in “The Egg and I” is de­cid­edly chilly, but a reader would never guess that it had in re­al­ity been cat­a­strophic. Mac­Don­ald fo­cused in­stead on her dis­like of chick­ens and the drudgery of can­ning, on de­scrip­tions of “moun­tains so im­mi­nent they gave me a feel­ing of some­one read­ing over my shoul­der” and the an­tics of her ami­able, bump­kin­ish neigh­bors. She filed for di­vorce in 1931 and spent the next 14 years hon­ing her sto­ries, down­play­ing the trau­matic de­tails that a con­tem­po­rary mem­oirist would ac­cen­tu­ate.

In­deed, Mac­Don­ald’s for­ti­tude was crit­i­cal to her ap­peal in the mid-20th cen­tury. Amer­i­cans were re­cov­er­ing from years of eco­nomic de­pres­sion fol­lowed by war, and Mac­Don­ald’s re­silience res­onated. Becker writes: “There was a quick­sil­ver magic in Betty’s take on life that helped read­ers re­cast their own trou­bles and showed them a way of look­ing at life that drained some of the venom from ad­ver­sity.”

Not every­one ap­pre­ci­ated “The Egg and I.” Mac­Don­ald’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions could be sting­ing, and even Becker con­fesses that she found “Egg” “kind of mean” the first time she read it. She de­votes a chap­ter to the un­suc­cess­ful li­bel suit brought by a fam­ily who thought they saw them­selves re­flected in the brood of slovenly Ma and Pa Ket­tle. Worse, Mac­Don­ald’s harsh de­scrip­tions of Na­tive Amer­i­cans are by to­day’s stan­dards racist.

“If Egg’s read­ers had been asked what topic Mac­Don­ald should tackle next, likely no one would have sug­gested tu­ber­cu­lo­sis,” Becker writes. Likely not, but Mac­Don­ald’s fol­low-up mem­oir, “The Plague and I,” de­scribed her ninemonth stay at a TB san­i­tar­ium when she was 31. “Plague” was Mac­Don­ald’s fa­vorite of her books, and it is a vivid piece of so­cial his­tory that some­how man­ages to be both dark and ef­fer­ves­cent. “There’s one thing to be said in fa­vor of life at The Pines,” Mac­Don­ald wrote of her first night in the san­i­tar­ium. “It’s go­ing to make dy­ing seem like a lot of fun.”

Two more mem­oirs fol­lowed, as well as one stand-alone chil­dren’s novel and the Mrs. Pig­gleWig­gle se­ries. Start to fin­ish, Mac­Don­ald’s ca­reer spanned just 13 years of in­tense pro­duc­tiv­ity. Mac­Don­ald made it look easy. Becker’s re­search sug­gests that it was any­thing but.

Where au­thors to­day write earnest books on nur­tur­ing cre­ativ­ity, Mac­Don­ald joked that she would tell as­pir­ing writ­ers: “First have a big mort­gage then lots of cof­fee.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.