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 bestseller 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 of the biography 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 nine-month 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. Piggle-Wiggle 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.” Even after the success of “Egg and I,” MacDonald suffered financial problems. Her second marriage was by all reports happy, but she was both the sole breadwinner in the family and a dutiful housewife.
In an unpublished essay that Becker unearthed, MacDonald wrote what would today be called a rant: “In my large family, being an author or ‘authing’ as we say, rates abut the same as gilding cattails or pressing wildflowers. First comes wifing, viz. cooking, cleaning, washing ironing, smiling, when angry, and using a pretty voice when I want to shriek. Then comes mothering or complete sublimation of my hurts and slights and insomnia . . .”
Becker is a historian and writes with a historian’s precision, but she has a fan’s insight and warmth. The result is a thorough and illuminating biography that, with any luck, will lead a new generation of readers to MacDonald’s own remarkable work.
Jennifer Reese the author of “Make the Bread, Buy the Butter,” writes the food blog the Tipsy Baker and lives in Mill Valley, Calif.
By Paula Becker
Univ. of Washington. 304 pp. $29.95