Writer Betty MacDonald still has much to say
March 26 marks the 100th birthday of Washington writer Betty MacDonald (1908-1958). And while it would be nice to report that her literary...
Seattle Times book critic
"Betty MacDonald's 100th Birthday!": 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday; free (206-463-2069, www.kcls.org/vashon/). Jennifer Carroll, as "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle," performs MacDonald's children's stories, 1 p.m., Vashon Heritage Museum, 10105 S.W. Bank Road, Vashon; HistoryLink staff historian Paula Becker gives a talk, "Betty MacDonald Slept Here," 3 p.m., Vashon Library, 17210 Vashon Highway S.W., Vashon; family and friends of MacDonald share "Film Reminiscences," 4 p.m., Park District Building, 17130 Vashon Highway S.W., Vashon.
Betty MacDonald exhibit, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; noon-6 p.m. Sundays, through April 15, Hugh and Jane Ferguson Room, Level 10, Seattle Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free (206-386-4636 or www.spl.org).
"The Egg and I — Betty MacDonald Had a Farm": A BBC radio documentary about MacDonald written by Lynne Truss ("Eats, Shoots & Leaves"). Program available online for one week after a March 13 broadcast (www.bbc.co.uk/radio4, click "Listen Again" option).
March 26 marks the 100th birthday of Washington writer Betty MacDonald (1908-1958). And while it would be nice to report that her literary legacy is in tiptop shape, that isn't the case.
True, her "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" books for children are all readily available. And "The Egg and I," her best-selling comic ode to the miseries of chicken farming on the Olympic Peninsula, will be reissued to mark her centennial (although not until June). A 100th birthday party is planned on Vashon Island on Sunday. A small exhibit of MacDonald items will be on display at the Seattle Central Library. And tomorrow a radio documentary on MacDonald, written by Lynne Truss ("Eats, Shoots & Leaves"), is being broadcast on BBC 4 (see sidebar).
But MacDonald's three brilliant adult memoirs that followed "The Egg and I" have fallen out of print. Reissued in handsome editions in the late 1990s by Akadine Press, "The Plague and I" (about undergoing treatment at Firland Tuberculosis Sanatorium), "Anybody Can Do Anything" (about job-hunting in Depression-era Seattle) and "Onions in the Stew" (about family follies on Vashon) all disappeared when Akadine went out of business 2006. Secondhand reprints of the books are now fetching as much as first editions — up to several hundred dollars.
As for a biography, if one is in the works, the rumor of it hasn't reached my ears.
A flourishing fan base
Despite this, interest in MacDonald, who died of cancer at age 49, continues to flourish. Indeed, a search on the Web reveals an obsession with MacDonald that borders on a personality cult.
When I clicked on an item by local writer Paula Becker, "Time Traveling the Roosevelt District with Betty MacDonald," I found 90 pages of reader commentary attached to it. Becker has some terrific articles on MacDonald posted on HistoryLink, too (see www.historylink.org). The Friends of Betty MacDonald (www.bettymacdonald.net) also keep the flame alive with reader forums and resource material.
If you really want to go off the deep end — and I don't recommend this — there's the Betty MacDonald Society, based in Germany (hometown.aol.com/macdonaldsociety/myhomepageindex.html). It's run by amateurs who are well-intentioned (I think) but who have created the most bizarre DVD biography I've ever seen. It's a slapdash sprint through MacDonald's life, from her early girlhood in Butte, Mont., through her Seattle, Olympic Peninsula and Vashon years, with the voice-over nearly drowned out by Doris Day's perky 1966 movie-theme song, "The Glass Bottom Boat" — repeated nonstop a dozen times.
A need for reassessment
Lost in all this chatter is the fact that MacDonald was a wonderful writer — and a perceptive social historian, and a sharp-eyed, self-deprecating satirist.
But most of all a writer.
An anonymous reviewer in Newsweek, writing about "Onions in the Stew" in 1955, put it nicely: "Ostensibly in 'Onions' she is describing her life with her husband and two daughters on Vashon Island in Puget Sound, with ravishing mountain views including the superb Rainier. But usually when Mrs. MacDonald considers anything so impersonal as scenery her mind wanders away to human foibles. Her tone in that regard is not catty; it is tigerish. For example: 'Lesley Arnold's voice was husky to that fascinating point just short of asthma.' "
Becker, a staff historian for HistoryLink, believes MacDonald's adult books are long overdue for a revival. In a recent e-mail exchange, she remarked, "Her work continues to resonate, and while of course certain aspects of some of the books are dated (the sentiments about American Indians in 'Egg,' some of the assumptions about what is expected behavior between men and women, etc.) she was really a wonderfully good writer and her work can be approached on many levels."
Becker adds,"The social content and detail are amazing. ... ['The Plague and I'] stands alone in its category, really. I know of no other first-person account of life as a patient in a tuberculosis sanitarium during that era, and the book has much to say about health, sickness, societal attitudes, and — most of all — gratitude."
An "Egg"-y sensation
Ever since they came out, "Plague," "Anybody" and "Onions" have been overshadowed by "The Egg and I." But what books wouldn't be? It's difficult to overstate just how huge a phenomenon "Egg" was. It sold a million copies in less than a year, and according to Michael Korda's "Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-1999," it was the No. 8 seller of 1945, the No. 1 seller of 1946 and the No. 7 seller of 1947.
MacDonald was profiled in Life Magazine in March 1946, and once she hit it big The Seattle Times regularly peppered its pages with updates on works in progress and new books coming out.
Media sensation became media ordeal when MacDonald and her publisher faced a libel suit from families and individuals who felt they'd been insultingly portrayed in "The Egg and I." None of them were identified by their real names in the book, however, and MacDonald said the characters under suspicion — including the Kettle family and an Indian named Crowbar — were composites.
A Seattle jury decided in MacDonald's favor on Feb. 20, 1951.
The trial does raise some fact-versus-fiction concerns about MacDonald's work. In "Egg," she used an elastic touch with locales as well as characters. And the book's happy ending was flatly contradicted five years later in "Anybody Can Do Anything," where MacDonald admits, "I hated chickens, I was lonely and I seemed to have married the wrong man."
Where's the biography?
But there are stronger reasons for someone to write a MacDonald biography than the parsing out of the fact from the fiction in her life. MacDonald was a most unusual figure for her era — a single mother for the 10 years between the time she left her first husband, Robert E. Heskett, and married her second husband, Donald C. MacDonald.
During that time, she lived with her mother and siblings in a house just north of Cowen Park in Seattle. After a series of fly-by-night jobs ("At the time I was painting photographs, or working for a gangster or a rabbit grower, I can't remember which"), she landed a job with the federal government and eventually became the first female labor inspector in the United States.
Her snapshots of 1930s Seattle in "Anybody Can Do Anything" couldn't be more vivid. And her account of her year being treated for tuberculosis at Firland Sanatorium (called "The Pines" in "The Plague and I") also offers great detail on Seattle's social fabric and racial tensions circa 1938.
MacDonald also had some interesting connections with Seattle's 1930s arts scene, mostly through her sister Mary Bard (also a writer). As Becker remarks, the Bard household was "a haven during the darkest days of the Great Depression, and many friends took shelter there for days, weeks, or even years at a time. Mary's friendship with Florence and Burton James, founders of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, meant that the household often played host to impromptu cast parties."
MacDonald puts it a little more tartly in "Anybody": "Mary ... was being intellectual so her friends were mostly musicians, composers, writers, painters, readers of hard dull books and pansies. They took the front off the piano and played on the strings, they sat on the floor and read aloud the poems of Baudelaire, John Donne and Rupert Brooke, they put loud symphonies on the record player and talked over them."
Could we be getting an early glimpse of John Cage experimenting with prepared piano here? The timing isn't quite right — but then MacDonald did sometimes play fast and loose with chronology.
In short, there's a lot of material for a biographer to cover beyond MacDonald's failed attempt at early marriage and chicken-farming. We need to know more about this writer who, in her much-too-short life, explored our region from so many angles and took on tough subject matter with such a light hand.
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