Betty Macdonald Rocks
Betty Macdonald's first book The Egg And I took America by storm when published at the end of World War 2.
Among other great characters, we are introduced to Betty's farming neighbours Ma and Pa Kettle. They quickly became famous in their own right from the success of The Egg And I movie, which starred Claudette Colbert. Though Betty came to dislike chickens after her chicken farm experiences she became forever associated with the birds after The Egg And I.
In The Egg and I Betty describes her years with first husband Bob on a remote chicken farm at Chimacum on the Washington State Olympic Peninsula, about an hour's drive from Port Angeles of Twilight movie fame.
She survived the Great Depression with humour in Seattle
After leaving her difficult husband with the chickens, we see Betty escape the wilds of Washington State's Olympic Peninsula and move home to her family in Seattle. Here she raises her two daughters Anne and Joan through the Great Depression in her book Anybody Can Do Anything. Those times were tough but no match for the humourous outlook of Betty and her lively extended family, especially fired-up sister Mary Bard.
Survives tuberculosis - only Betty could make this funny
Betty's funny-bone is put to the test again through a life-threatening bout of tuberculosis. She spends a year in a sanitorium away from her family, but during her long recovery makes good friends and meets memorable characters. This experience becomes her book The Plague And I.
Moves to beautiful Vashon Island in Puget Sound
In easier times Betty meets second husband Don, and the family moves out to a sea-front home overlooking Puget Sound on Vashon island off the coast of Seattle. The house is still there, now running as a popular bed and breakfast. This part of her life became Onions In The Stew.
Betty's autobiographical books are quirky, personal, honest, tender, sometimes sad and almost always funny. She has a sharp eye for people's personal quirks and habits, resulting in some hilarious character sketches that can sometimes be quite caustic. Beware the seemingly quiet Bettys in life! They don't miss much, that is for sure!
A Word of Warning
Do note - in Betty's world the language isn't always clean, people are keen drinkers and smokers, sex is handled matter-of-factly and some cultural views are definitely of their time... so her books may not be a good fit for those who like to completely avoid earthy or culturally insensitive fare.
But it is worth reading around this so you can enjoy the many delights of Betty Macdonald!
Betty Macdonald and I
My sister and I discovered Betty in our family bookcase as young teenagers and have been firm Betty fans ever since. It says a lot for Betty that 1980s teens in New Zealand would take to her 1940s American autobiographies like ducks to water - and years on we still love her to bits.
We love Betty's grandmother Gammy who lived with the family, baked cakes containing everything from onions to old jars of jam, and kept what seems like a full pantry and pharmacy in her bed.
"...a lover of Gammy's certainly would have had a lumpy couch with her nightgowns, bed jackets and several extra suits of 'chimaloons' folded under the pillow, her Bible tucked under the sheet at the top right-hand side, any book she happened to be reading tucked under the sheet on the other side, little bags of candy, an apple or two, current magazines, numerous sachets and her bottle of camphor just tucked under the blankets or scattered under the pillows within easy reach. We children thought this an ideal arrangement, for when we were lonely or frightened Gammy's bed was as comforting as a crowded country store."
Gammy is a fantastic source of humour. She must have been a remarkable woman, a true individual and survivor. She had so many strange ways and odd habits. We read every paragraph about Gammy with relish.
There is Betty's pioneer spirited mother who, though raised well-to-do in Boston, was happy to drop everything in response to her husband's telegram "Leaving for Mexico City for two years Thursday - be ready if you want to come along."
Mother is refined but hardy, and obviously a rock through hard times for the family. She comes across gentle and very strong.
And there is Betty's spirited sister Mary who often instigates unusual situations and adventures...
"When I told Mary about my second grade teacher not giving us sausage books, Mary was so outraged she was going right back to school and mark on the desks and put paste in the inkwells, but to her relief I pleaded with her and finally talked her out of this dangerous act of loyalty. So as a reward she tried to invent perpetual motion and knocked out all my front teeth."
All the family must have been characters - the kind of people you meet and think, someone should write a book about these people. Well, Betty did!
And of course we love Betty herself, who tries to lighten her lonely outlook on the chicken ranch by explaining mysterious chicken deaths with record book entries like "chickenpox-eggzema". Her husband is not amused, replacing her entries with "not determined".
But I can't convince you to love Betty in a few paragraphs. The best way to make up your mind is to read her excellent books for yourself, starting with...
The Egg And I
Betty's famous first book about the chicken ranch
The Egg And I was published just after WWII and tells of how she left her quirky, vibrant family after marrying young to live in rural isolation with her first husband on a chicken ranch in the North Pacific mountains.
Betty doesn't dwell on the romance of this way of life, which was especially hard back then in the 1930s considering the barriers to transport and communication.
She describes a lifestyle filled with beauty, community and the satisfaction of work well done, but doesn't gloss over how hard and lonely this life can be.
There are sweet spots though, one being the legacy of good humour and closeness in her family. Strong personalities with individual approaches to life, each of them leaves a strong impression on Betty as she creates a family of her own. She heartily recommends living with a grandparent but Gammy being Gammy this does cause confusion.
On living with her mother and grandmother:
"Mother set the table with candles and silver and glassware and flowers every night whether we had company or not. Gammy preferred to eat in the kitchen with peeler knives and carving forks as utensils. Mother taught me to wash dishes, first the glassware, then the silver, then the china and last the pots and pans. Gammy washed dishes, first a glass, then a greasy frying pan, then a piece or two of silver. Mother served food beautifully with parsley and paprika and attractive colour combinations of vegetables. Gammy tossed things on the table in the dishes in which they had been cooked and when she served she crowded the food into one frightened group, leaving most of the plate bare. 'After all it's only nourishment for the body', she would say as she slapped a spoon of mashed potato on top of the chop and sprinkled the whole thing with peas. It was a lesson in cross-purposes and the result is that one day I barely clean my house and the next day I'm liable to lick the rafters and clean out nail holes with a needle."
You really get a sense of Betty's mother, Sydney, here and the contrast between her and grandmother Gammy. They are chalk and cheese. Somehow they coexisted in the same home for many years and obviously this had an effect on Betty! I often think of this passage when my own home goes through bursts of extreme tidiness and desperate clutter...
On moving to the mountains:
"... the land up there was all of it so untainted, so virginal, that I expected the earth to yell 'Ouch' when we stuck a spade into it and any germ that could have survived the rigours of that life would have been so big and strapping we could have seen it for blocks."
Betty's description of the land and its wildness is fantastic. She makes the land itself into a character almost as much as any person. It appears that some of the locals were fairly wild too. This is where the infamous Ma and Pa Kettle become cemented in American culture. Betty's farming neighbours were the real people - Ma and Pa themselves. No wonder they ended up a movie phenomenon.
On meeting neighbour Ma Kettle:
"Mrs Kettle had pretty light brown hair, only faintly streaked with grey and skinned back into a tight knot, clear blue eyes, a creamy skin which flushed exquisitely from the heat, a straight delicate nose, fine even white teeth and a small rounded chin. From this dainty pretty head cascaded a series of busts and stomachs which made her look like a cookie jar shaped like a woman. Her whole front was dirty and spotted and she wiped her hands continually on one or other of her stomachs. She had also a disconcerting habit of reaching up under her dress and adjusting something in the vicinity of her navel and reaching down the front of her dress and adjusting her large breasts. These adjustments were not, I learned later, confined to either the privacy of the house or a female gathering - they were made anywhere - any time. 'I itch - so I scratch - so what!' was Mrs Kettle's motto."
The descriptions of Ma touch on how she might have been had she married a different man. She struggled early on with her husband's ways and eventually gave into the chaos. Pa is hilariously painted and there are many accounts of his escapades and casual madness.
The Kettles were not the only interesting folks in the area. Birdie Hicks was a fantastically organised and capable woman, baking cakes and laying down canning before seven in the morning. But her mother was not so grounded, as Betty describes...
On the mother of neighbour Birdie Hicks:
"I had sat on Birdie Hicks' front porch for perhaps two minutes when I realized that hungry as I was for companionship this visit was going to be an ordeal, for Birdie's mother, a small sharp-cornered woman with a puff of short grey hair like a gone-to-seed dandelion, tried so hard to be young that conversation with her was out of the question and her ceaseless activity was as nerve-wracking as watching someone blow up an old balloon."
In a few short sentences you have a real sense of this flibberty-gibbet woman whose energy drains that of those around her. Betty describes in another passage how Birdie's mother gives a jumping performance to convince her audience that she is spry as a chicken. Exhausting.
Also fascinating is Betty's recall of her first marriage. She doesn't make outright criticisms but instead draws a detailed picture with a few words.
On the changing relationship with her husband:
"One night after dinner as I sat at the kitchen table industriously making my baby chick 'feed and death' entries for the day, Bob unexpectedly kissed the back of my neck. I was as confused as though an old boss had chosen that means of rewarding me for a nice typing job. 'Another year or two and we probably won't even use first names', I told Bob."
Betty and Bob come across as very different personalities. Once the romance has gone, Betty's sense of humour seems lost on Bob as are her requirements for basic things like company and water for washing. Reading between the lines he may have been less than supportive in many ways. A young woman having two small children in rural isolation, often alone, would likely have found her life a more difficult prospect than the romantic vision she expected.
The isolation caused Betty to welcome any and all visitors, including the sales people who travelled from property to property. Though any company in the lonely wilderness was welcome often the salespeople themselves and the products they offered were not so enticing.
On visiting sales people:
"There were also a Corset Lady and a House-dress Lady. They travelled together and one squeezed me into a corset and the other jammed me into a house-dress. The Corset Lady had piercing black eyes and a large bust and stomach apparently encased in steel, for when I brushed against her it was like bumping into our oil drum. She was such a high-pressure saleswoman that almost before she had turned off the ignition of her car I found myself in my bedroom in my 'naked strip' being forced into a foundation garment."
Betty's family kept in touch of course and from their communications it is clear the wry sense of humour was genetic.
On letters from the family:
"Among the letters I received were monthly ones from Deargrandmother addressed Dear Child Bride, which I found intensely annoying... I wrote to Mother and demanded that she make Deargrandmother stop addressing me in this depressing way, but Mother characteristically replied, 'Why stop her? She enjoys it and it doesn't hurt you.' In fact, even mentioning the child bride business to my family was a mistake, for from that time on all of their letters were addressed - and sometimes on the outside of the envelope - Child Bride."
Read The Egg And I
The updated cover of The Egg And I is nice on the new publication but I still treasure my plain, dirty, second-hand copy. On the inside cover of mine there's an inscription from my ma to my dad that says 'with love and light humour, christmas 1972'. No way am I trading that for a nicer looking new copy! Of course The Egg And I reads well no matter what the cover looks like :-)
Amazon is probably the easiest place to find yourself a copy of The Egg and I.
Watch Clips From The Egg And I Movie
If you're a Betty Macdonald, Claudette Colbert, or Fred MacMurry fan, definitely check out The Egg And I movie. It's a well-loved film but I have to admit that I didn't enjoy it as much as I had hoped, probably because I love the depth of the book and the movie is much more slapstick. I guess I wanted the scenes and characters to be exactly like the book!
You can find The Egg And I movie on Amazon.
The Plague and I
Betty's second - the sanitorium
Surely an account of your battle with tuberculosis in a sanitorium must be a miserable, downcast story?
Not so for Betty Macdonald. She doesn't shrink from the difficulties of serious illness and institutional life, but she saw much to observe and relish too.
Some fantastic characters appear in the form of sanitorium room-mates. In particular are Kimi the young and wise Japanese girl, Eileen the firey redhead who just won't rest up, and Minna the sneaky and sickly sweet southern belle.
In this book Betty recounts more of her fascinating early life with her adventurous father, graciously accepting mother and, of course, her unusually quirky grandmother Gammy.
On Gammy's pessimism:
"After she had fixed us some hot potsum and had given us each a much too big helping of her grey, gluey, lumpy oatmeal, Gammy would pick up the morning paper and read aloud bad news. 'I see that the Huns are cutting off all the Belgian women's breasts', she would remark pleasantly as she took a sip of Potsum. Or, 'Well, here's a poor careless little child who played on the railroad tracks and the train came along and cut off both his legs at the hip. Poor little legless creature.' Or, 'Here's a mountain girl who had a baby at thirteen. Well, I suppose we can't start too young to learn what life has in store for us.' When she had exhausted all the sad news about people, she would read bad weather reports from all over the world. Blizzards, cyclones, droughts, floods, hurricanes and tidal waves were her pleasure. Mother pleaded with Daddy to stop taking the morning paper, but we children loved it."
I loved reading these gems from Betty's childhood when I was almost still a child myself. Our family has a great sense of humour and laughs a lot but Betty's family are in a whole different league! Gammy in particular always made us hysterical with giggles. The tiny details all added up to such an outrageous character. How could a grandmother be like that? we would wonder. Every day would be hilarious if you lived with her!
The same could maybe be said about Betty herself. Who else could make tuberculosis and sanitoriums funny? Her dry observations, noting of incongruity, and keen eye for the absurd in people and situations pull her through.
Betty pulls together both the details and the big picture of her life and life in general. Here she writes about what it was like to get a possibly terminal diagnosis of TB.
On getting TB:
"Getting tuberculosis in the middle of your life is like starting down town to do a lot of urgent errands and being hit by a bus. When you regain consciousness you remember nothing about the important errands. You can't even remember where you were going. The important things now are the pain in your leg; the soreness in your back; what you will have for dinner; who is in the next bed."
Instead of concentrating on the negative, Betty's focus is the ludicrous. Her description of the medical director at the sanitorium is of a man who tries in vain to be both honest and uplifting. As you can read in the following excerpt, he fails miserably.
On meeting the sanitorium medical director:
"He said, 'Taking the cure is going to be difficult for you. You have red hair - lots of energy, you're quick, active, impatient. All bad for tuberculosis. Discipline will be hard for you. The cure of tuberculosis is all discipline.' I said that I would do anything. Anything at all to get well. He stood up and put his arm around me and said, 'That is the spirit', which was very kind of him considering the fact that he had just written on my card, 'Prognosis - doubtful'."
The staff's attitude towards the patients is very much that of old-school teachers and children. Patients may not speak nor move, must obey the rules. However Betty reminds us what the situation is actually like for adults finding themselves in a tuberculosis sanitorium.
On living in a sanitorium:
"Being suddenly thrust with perfect strangers and forced to live with them without any privacy at all for twenty-four-hour period after twenty-four-hour period is as much a problem in adjustment as a planned marriage but without the impetus or surcease of sex."
Betty's fellow 'inmates' are a mixed bunch but some stand out. Kimi, the young Japanese woman, is one such. She is both gentle and feisty, and unexpectedly funny. Her mother is a poet and instead of bringing the items Kimi really wants, she turns up with poems instead. Some of the interactions between Kimi and the less endearing patients (tiny Minna in particular) are fantastic.
On Kimi being given time out of bed:
"Kimi was ecstatic until after breakfast when she stood up to put on her robe. Then Minna said 'Oh, honey, youah so tall, youah just enohmous! I had no idea you were so big!' Kimi, looking as though she had been slapped, said, 'The Japanese are such little fellow, already I felt like Gulliver with the Lilliputian.' I said, 'But you're not very tall Kimi.' Kimi said 'Oh yes, already five and one feet and probably still growing.' I said, 'But I'm five feet seven', and Eileen said 'And I'm five feet five.' Minna said, 'And poah little me can't reach five feet with high heels. It's shuah lucky foh me that Sweetie-Pie says that good things come in small packages.' Eileen said 'And I can get just as sick to my stummick on a little of your guff as I can on a whole lot.' 'And the bite of a little rattlesnake is just as deadly as the bite of a big one', Kimi said, moving slowly and regally out the door."
Betty was in the sanitorium for a very long time - about a year or more if my memory is right. I must check that. But certainly many months. The upheaval this would cause as a single mother of two daughters is hard to imagine. Luckily Betty's family are so close the girls are well cared for during her illness. In fact one doesn't seem to mind her being gone all that very much judging from the following excerpt.
On seeing her daughters for the first time after admittance to the sanitorium:
"I had been at The Pines a month and it was Sunday and a visiting day. On the stroke of two I opened my eyes and there were Anne and Joan and Mother. Anne and Joan had on new dark blue coats and their own shining faces and were beautiful. Anne said, her eyes filling with tears, 'I would like to kiss you.' Joan said 'I can do a figure eight on my roller skates.' Anne said 'The nurse said that we couldn't even touch your bed.' Joan said 'I can do a figure eight on my roller skates.' I said, 'Don't you think this is a beautiful hospital, girls?' Anne said, 'It smells!' Then added tactfully, 'Like medicine! When can you come home, Mommy?' Joan said, 'When you come home you can see me do a figure eight on my roller skates.' Kimi's family came in then and the children were fascinated and had to be turned around and faced in my direction."
This passage was always guaranteed to make us laugh, with younger Joan fixated on her roller skating ability more than the fact of her mother being sick in hospital. Older Anne is obviously more worried but just as distracted when Kimi's family arrive.
So many families at this time must have endured such hardship when a family member had TB. Having your parent or sibling away in hospital for such a long time would be awful. I think the closeness and humour of Betty's family was a real safeguard for her children during this time.
Betty's descriptions of the girls in her subsequent book show them very unscathed by the experience and in fact behaving as bewilderingly normal as any teenager. Their escapades are a great reason to read Onions in the Stew. But Anybody Can Do Anything is next chronologically and not one to miss!
Read The Plague And I
The title sounds dreary but the writing sure isn't!
Anybody Can Do Anything
Betty's third book - the great depression
The Great Depression was a hard time for many people, and Betty's family was no exception. Anybody Can Do Anything tells the story of how the family weathered the financial storms of 1930s America.
Like the previous books, this one features more stories about Betty's early life with her family. In particular we learn more about her go-getting sister Mary, and indeed it is Mary's inexhaustable energy and connections that pull the family through some of the hardest years of the Depression.
On the Depression's silver lining:
"The best thing about the depression was the way it reunited our family and gave my sister Mary a real opportunity to prove that anybody can do anything, especially Betty."
Mary's character is really brought out in this book. She was obviously a feisty firecracker since childhood. Just read this excerpt that harks back to their life with Gammy when Betty was young.
On Mary as an older sister to infant Betty:
"When I was but a few months old, Gammy, my father's mother who always lived with us, sent Mary to the kitchen to ask the cook for a drink of water for me. Mary returned in a matter of seconds with the bathroom glass half-filled with water. Gammy, suspicious, asked Mary where she had got the water. Mary said, 'Out of the toilet.' Gammy said, 'Mary Bard, you're a naughty little girl.' Mary pointed at me smiling and reaching for the cup and said, 'No I'm not, Gammy. See, she wants it. We always give it to her.'"
Mary - confident and resourceful at an early age! She pulled Betty into her schemes, some of which boggle my mind as a parent. How on earth do you react if your daughters pull something like the following?
On Mary as an older sister to Betty a few years later:
"And the time after we had moved to Seattle that Mary and I, then ten and twelve, were dressing after swimming and she suggested that I stand naked in the window of our bedroom and wave to the President of the Milwaukee Railroad, who with his wife was being shown the garden by Mother and Daddy. When I seemed a little reluctant to extend this evidence of Western hospitality, Mary tried to convince me and somehow in the course of the convincing she pushed her head and shoulders through the window pane and we both rolled out on the roof into the heap of broken glass, stark naked and yelping like wounded dogs. The President of the Milwaukee Railroad and his wife, who didn't have any children, believed our story about my catching my foot in my bathing suit and falling against Mary and forcing us both through the window, and were very sympathetic to us when we appeared for tea, wrapped in bandages."
I loved reading about this and all their childhood adventures when I was younger. Now that I'm a parent it gives me a whole different perspective! But Mother, Daddy and Gammy were entrepid, staunch souls and I suspect they took it all their stride.
Mary took her role as older sister seriously and used her many contacts to secure Betty jobs during the Depression. Her enthusiasm might have led her to exaggerate Betty's situation, just a little.
On Mary getting Betty a job after leaving the chicken ranch:
"In the lobby she introduced me to about fifteen assorted men and women and explained that she had just brought me down out of the mountains to take her place as private secretary to Mr Webster. In her enthusiasm she made it sound a little as though she had to wing me to get me down out of the trees, and I felt that I should have taken a few nuts and berries out of my pocket and nibbled on them just to keep in character."
Part of Betty's genius is her ability to identify those universal human experiences we can relate to. Like seeking employment in dire circumstances...
On trying to find a job in the pouring rain:
"A block before I got off the streetcar, I noted my bedraggled appearance in my pocket mirror, wiped off the runny mascara from under my eyes, poked some of the wet hair under my hat and comforted myself with the knowledge that most terribly talented people look as if they had just crawled out of a manhole."
It wasn't just work that was scarce in the Great Depression. Entertainment had to be affordable and usually that meant it also had to be free. One pastime Betty found was to visit church recitals. I am so glad she did or we would never have met piano player Miss Grondahl.
On the pianist at a church recital:
"She had shed her gold cape and was simply clad in a sleeveless black satin dress and some crystal beads. She settled herself on the piano bench, folded her hands in her lap and began to sway. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth and then suddenly... she lit into the first runs of 'Rustle'. Miss Grondahl was a vigorous, very loud player, but what made her performance irresistable to Dede and me were the large tufts of black hair which sprang quivering out of the armholes of her dress each time she lifted her hands at the end of a run or raised her arms for a crashing chord. After that we rarely missed a recital."
Being a divorcee during the Depression gave an extra dimension to socialising. It wasn't enough to always be at church for recitals. The additional pressure of not only being cash strapped but being expected to join the dating scene made Betty a little flippant.
On socializing after divorce:
"Most females between the ages of thirteen and forty-five feel that being caught at home dateless, especially on a Friday or Saturday night, is a shameful thing like having athlete's foot. I used to harbour the same silly notion and many's the lie I've told to anyone tactless enough to call up at nine-thirty and ask me what I was doing. 'What am I doing?' I'd say, brushing the fudge crumbs off the front of my pyjamas and making the place in my book. 'Oh, just sitting here sipping champagne and smoking opium. My date had trouble with his car.'"
The subject of money isn't avoided or romanticised. The family just get on with it, they get through. Their positive attitude and closeness are a huge advantage, and they share the hard times with other struggling friends. Many people during those difficult years must have drawn comfort from their company, as the following extract suggests.
On entertaining guests in the Depression years:
"Every night for dinner we had from two to ten extra people to tax Mother's ingenuity in stretching the meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, chili, tuna fish and noodles, vegetable soup, park wood and beds. After dinner we played bridge or charades or Chinese checkers or the piano, rolled old cigarette butts into new cigarettes on our little cigarette-rolling machine, drank gallons of coffee which was seventeen cents a pound, ate cinnamon toast, read aloud Mark Twain, made fun of each other and all our friends, sang songs, played records, followed the dance marathons on the radio and complained because our bosses tried to stifle our individuality by making us work."
Betty's hand is light but realistic in drawing a picture of times none of us want to experience. Sadly times are tough in many places now too. I think we can find a lot of inspiration in Betty McDonald's account of the Great Depression.
Read Anybody Can Do Anything
With the economic problems facing everyone right now, this book is especially relevant again today.
Onions In The Stew
Betty's fourth - vashon island
This book covers Betty's life with second husband Don, beginning in World War II. Onions In The Stew tells the story of their move to Vashon Island off the coast of Seattle, with Betty's now teenage daughters.
As usual we are introduced to new intriguing characters like the not-so-hapless-as-she-seems Elizabeth Gage and the temptress Lesley Arnold, but it is the characters of Anne's immediate family - Don, Anne and Joan - that are focused on and fleshed out beautifully in this book.
Betty continues to share her gift for embuing nature with its own personality. She makes Puget Sound and its islands real and familiar even to those who haven't had the pleasure of visiting.
Introducing Vashon Island:
"From the water Vashon looks like a stout gentleman taking a Sunday nap under a woolly dark green afghan. The afghan, obviously home-made, is fringed on the edges, occasionally lumpy, eked out with odds and ends of paler and darker wools, but very ample so that it falls in thick folds to the water. Against this vast greenness, houses scattered along the shore appear small and forlorn, like discarded paper boxes floated in on the tide. The few hillside houses look half smothered and defeated, like frail invalids in the clutches of a huge feather bed."
This description of Vashon Island immediately made me want to travel to Puget Sound one day. So far that hasn't happened. But we have friends who live close by, and I did work with people who have stayed there so it doesn't feel like too remote a possibility to one day make the trip!
I love her description of the realities of owning a house on an island. Beautiful, yes. Convenient? No!
On living off-road:
"Our new beautiful pewter-coloured dream house had no road. This tiny flaw in its perfection, at first candidly spoken of and looked apon as a flaw but so insignificant compared to things like a salt-water beach and handbraided rugs, had during the summer of fluctuation and persuasion somehow emerged as a blessing. No road meant no bores, the Hendersons said. No road meant privacy. No road meant nothing to run over the children and animals. 'We don't want a road', our neighbours said and are still saying, only each year more faintly, with less conviction. 'We don't want a road either', we said bravely that summer when we were negotiating. Then came the day of reckoning and we were faced with the uncomfortable fact that walking the mile and a half from the ferry on a beautiful trail along the water carrying a pound of bacon and a quart of gin is one thing. Hauling in a van-load of furniture and possessions is unquestionably another."
One of Betty's strengths as a writer is her ability to push fantasy and reality up against one another, squeezing out both hardships and humour.
Her relationship with her daughters is a great example of this. Onions in the Stew really focuses on Anne and Joan growing up. Their difference in age and character are illustrated with a few economical strokes of the pen. For example, the way both girls approach starting their new school.
On Joan preparing to start at her new school:
"Joan's approach to the problem was very simple. She merely asked me forty-two times if I had put three whole sandwiches in her lunch. I said I had and she said what about an apple - I said yes and she said cookies? Yes. And she was ready."
On Anne preparing to start at her new school:
"Anne's preparation involved first going through and despising all her clothes, then choosing the least loathesome things and ironing them, even things as smooth as mirrors. She wouldn't allow me to iron them - too careless; or Joan - too stupid. She was half-way through her third blouse - first one turned out to be 'absolutely filthy' - tiny speck on part that tucked into the skirt - the second - 'entirely rotted under arms from perspiration. How I loathe hand-me-downs! How I wish we were rich! How I despise living in the country. Why do we always have to change schools every five minutes?' (this was the first change to my knowledge). I showed her that the 'entirely rotted' was merely a small wrinkle from being packed. This brought tears to her eyes so I let her alone, and went out to put breakfast on the table. She called to me excitedly, I put down my spatula and went into the living-room, steeled to combat rot and filth."
Betty's new husband Don is introduced in this book. She doesn't need to say much to paint a vivid picture.
On being snowed in for two weeks and running out of food:
"One bleak morning towards the end of the siege, I was shuffling around the kitchen contemplating a casserole of noodles, Puss'nBoots and candle stubs, when Don announced 'My God, we have run out of whiskey!' and offered to mush up to Vashon and get some supplies."
The unexpected realities of sland life combined with work and family keeps a person well occupied, as the following illustrates nicely.
On the difficulties of keeping up with friends when living on an island:
"The other day I ran into what I consider a close friend on the ferry. I said, 'Oh, and you have the new baby with you. I've been dying to see her', and she said, 'You must mean Marilyn, Betty. She started school yesterday. This is Johnny and I guess you missed Larry altogether. Too bad I left him at home with Mother.' She knew that I have been busy and obviously she has too."
Betty's observations about teenagers tickled me when I was one. Now I feel like she is warning me to be strong for what is ahead. Parents of teens will probably nod their heads at passages like this one...
On young adults:
"Adolescents do not hate their parents. They merely feel absolute contempt, occasionally coated with condescending pity for them, their tiny brains, ridiculous ideas, unfair rules and obvious senility. They refer to their fathers as 'oh, him' and their mothers as 'she' - 'She won't let me go, naturally. She's scared to death I might have a little fun for a change.' 'Who was that on the phone? Oh, him! What did he want, his overcoat again?'"
I love this book. It is beautiful, funny, sad, thoughtful, full of grim reality and the stuff of dreams.
Read Onions In The Stew
This is probably my fave Betty book ... I think! Time to read them again and decide for sure...
Have you been to Vashon Island?
Betty Macdonald Cooks
Food is a recurring topic for Betty Macdonald. She and her family appreciated good fare, and they definitely noticed when it wasn't so good! Meals, ingredients and the act of cooking are described lovingly and hilariously in Betty's books (particularly Onions In The Stew). These passages often make me put down the book and hunt for a tasty snack :-)
On first husband Bob cooking venison, from the Egg And I:
"Bob usually cooked the game. We underwent this little ordeal because he was of the opinion that only he, and perhaps the chef of the Waldorf, knew how to cook game. With venison he used lots of garlic, pinches of sage, majoram, bayleaf, pepper, salt, hundreds of pots and pans, Worcestershire, celery salt, onion salt, mushroom salt and every else he could grab with his large floury hands. When the meat was finally in the oven he hovered around the stove getting in my way and complaining about the quality of the wood (that same wood which he had praised so highly to me and with each armful of which he had guaranteed white heat). When at long last with reverant hands he served me a portion of the venison steak, chops or roast, I found that it tasted just like venison and palled after the second week."
The variety and amount of food available to Betty and her household when living in Chimacum really amazed me. The coastline and forests around Washington State were bursting with produce and animals. They certainly didn't go hungry.
Betty's Clam Fritters
"Soak three large peeled, grated potatoes in water overnight. Add the potatoes to two cups of ground clams, three beaten eggs, about four tablespoons of flour (Betty says to use more if the batter doesn't hold together), a grated onion, about half a teaspoon of salt, coarse black pepper to taste and half a cup of chopped parsley. Cook the fritters with bacon fat on a griddle (I guess an ordinary frying pan will do fine too). Betty suggests serving with butter and crisp bacon."
I love her descriptions of Don cooking. His extreme seriousness and complexity of technique is familiar to me as a characteristic of my own 'Don' who doesn't cook very often but is like a chef when he does.
On second husband Don as a cook, from Onions In The Stew:
"Don likes to cook too, but like most males in the kitchen even the making of a fried-egg sandwich produces the attitude of a Vienna trained surgeon repairing the trachea of a new-born baby. 'Hand me that pan! Where is the butter? Now some coarse ground pepper, careful not too much. Is the bread buttered? Heat the plates! Have you made the coffee? Hand me the spatula, no, the big one. Move faster, things are getting cold.' He demands much of his staff as he busies himself turning the clean kitchen into something that looks as if it had been attacked by a gang of dope-crazed teen-aged vandals."
Part of me is desperate to try one of Don's sandwiches. Part of me is glad it is prepared in a book that recalls history in a different country. Decide for yourself!
On Don bringing Betty an inedible version of his famous fried Monte Christo sandwich when she is sick one New Year's Eve, from Onions In The Stew:
"Joan said, 'Well, I came out in the kitchen and Don was breaking eggs into a bowl. Squashing them between his hands and letting the egg run through his fingers the way he says chefs do. I noticed a couple of feathers and an awful lot of pepper in the bowl but I didn't say anything until he finished cracking the eggs and began grinding in more pepper. Then I said, "Aren't you putting in an awful lot of pepper in that batter?" He said, "I haven't put any in yet." I said, "You did too. I saw it. Look." I showed him the billions of black specks and he said, "That isn't pepper." I asked him what it was then and he said, "Probably just a little old chicken manure." Then I looked at the eggs and they were the ones he always gets from that crazy Mrs. Elchin and of course they were covered with feathers and chicken manure. I told Don he'd better throw the eggs out and start over and he said, "Vitamin B-12 is very healthful. Anyway, nobody will know the difference" and kept right on grinding the pepper.'"
Don's Monte Christo Sandwiches
Ham, swiss cheese and turkey in white bread, dipped in peppery egg batter and fried in butter.
On recipes doomed to failure, from Onions In The Stew:
"The other day as I ironed I listened idly to a radio programme for housewives. I was immediately irritated by the commentator or whatever she calls herself, because she said 'prolly' for 'probably'. I was further irritated when with a great deal of self-confidence and speaking slowly so that the listeners could get it all down, she gave a perfectly ghastly recipe for one of my favourite foods, pot roast. As nearly as I can remember she said, 'This being spring you are prolly at the end of your ropes as far as meal planning is concerned and would prolly just love to know about an easy delicious meal to surprise your family. Well, here it is. Individual pot roasts. All you do is take a pot roast and cut it up into pieces, so that each member of the family has one, put them in individual casseroles, cover with plenty of water, add a couple of carrots and a turnip and bake until done. What a surprise for the family! Everybody with his own little pot roast!' From her recipe I would say 'everybody with his own little chunk of boiled army blanket'. Another female household-hinter gave a recipe for a big hearty main dish of elbow macaroni, mint jelly, lima beans, mayonnaise and cheese baked until 'hot and yummy'. Unless my taste buds are paralysed, this dish could be baked until Hell freezes over and it might get hot but never 'yummy'."
Betty's Clam Chowder
Grind at least four cups of fresh butter clams with a green pepper, a bunch of green onions, six slices of bacon, a couple of peeled potatoes and a bunch of parsley. Cover with water and simmer until the potatoes are cooked. Add milk (Betty says 'two or three large cans' but I guess just enough to give you a consistency you like), and salt and coarse ground pepper to taste. She suggests serving hot with buttered toast.
I haven't tried out the food ideas in Betty's books yet, like the ones above. If you do, let us know how they turn out!
From Eggs To Stew - A closer look at Betty and her food
Seems like I'm not the only one interested in Betty's food - someone beat me to it way back in 1989 with academic style no less! If you like Betty MacDonald and food too, make sure you check out Cooking By The Book: Food In Literature And Culture edited by Mary Anne Schofield.
One of the essays in the book is From Eggs To Stew: The Importance of Food in the Popular Narratives of Betty MacDonald, written by Delmar Davis. The essay takes an in-depth look at how Betty talks about food in her books.
Intriguingly one of the other essays included in this book is about Elizabeth Gage. Elizabeth is of course familiar to Onions In The Stew readers as the happily pitiful mother who, very unexpectedly, happens to be a fantastic cook.
The From Eggs To Stew essay on Betty MacDonald runs to about ten pages. I'm not sure how long the essay on Elizabeth Gage is.
Does Betty Rock? - What does everyone else think of Betty Macdonald... maybe Betty is only loved by members of my family!
Does Betty rock?
Which book is your fave? Can you even choose just one? Maybe you like one of her other books better.... or maybe you just don't like these books at all.
Best Betty Book
Betty for Young'uns... Mrs Piggle-Wiggle
Yes, Betty wrote non-autobiographical books as well. Probably her best known fiction books are her range for children.
Interesting random fact... Maurice Sendak, famous for his book 'Where the Wild Things Are', illustrated Mrs Piggle-Wiggle's Farm.
This is an audio talking book version of Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, read by Karen White. I happen to love talking books - great for reading while you do the housework! But talking books appeal to kids as well. I have good memories of drawing or building with blocks while listening to stories on tape or on the record player. Of course this talking book is available on CD rather than on vinyl! Times have moved on :-)
Children's Theatre Company Performs The Magic Mrs Piggle-Wiggle
Does Mrs Piggle-Wiggle Rock? - Remember Mrs Piggle-Wiggle books by Betty MacDonald from when you were a kid? Like em? Hate em? Let us know!
Does Mrs Piggle-Wiggle Rock?
Nancy and Plum
Readers of Betty's book Anybody Can Do Anything will remember how Betty and her sister Mary spun tales about two orphan children, Nancy and Plum. In later years these childhood stories were published as a book for new generations of children to enjoy. Like Mrs Piggle-Wiggle, the characters of Nancy and Plum are now well-loved in children's literature.
An audio talking book version of Nancy And Plum has also been released, but alas new copies don't seem to be available at the moment. There are some second hand ones available now on Amazon though - see below.
I wish I knew who did the illustrations for Nancy And Plum, they are gorgeous.
More Betty Goodness - The Egg And I movie and The Kettles
The Egg And I movie was such a success that it sparked a series of films based on Betty's neighbours Mr and Mrs Kettle, more famously known as Ma and Pa Kettle (played by Percy Kilbride and Marjorie Main). These were very popular films at the time and still have a big following.
Ma And Pa Kettle Movie Clip
Betty's Sister, Mary Bard - Betty's sister Mary is also an excellent writer.
Writing under her maiden name of Mary Bard, Mary is well worth a read too. So far I've only read one of her books - Forty Odd - which is Mary's account of turning forty. It's good, definitely funny, but also a little sad somehow.
I haven't yet read her other books, The Doctor Wears Three Faces and Just Be Yourself, but will do as soon as I find which family member has them tucked away. I think she may have written others too.
Pity Amazon doesn't have pics for all Mary's books here. Once I finally track down our old family copies I will add images for each book. This is proving frustrating as it sounds like they have all been loaned out to friends, and noone can remember who! Could be time for a fresh search of the local second hand book shops :-)
Mary Bard Resources
Not only did both sisters write, they also both had books adapted for film. I don't think there were any radio adaptions of Betty's books but there was certainly an adaption of Mary's book The Doctor Wears Three Faces.
- MP3 file of the 'The Doctor Wears Three Faces' radio adapation
In 1954 a radio adaption of The Doctor Wears Three Faces was aired under the title Mother Didn't Tell Me, based on the film of the same name. The film had already been released in 1950. Both the radio play and the film featured Dorothy McGuire and Wi
- Mary Bard Jensen fan site
This is the sister site to the Friends of Betty Macdonald site. I've included some resources for Mary here, but no matter what Mary Bard info and resources you're looking for, her fan site should be your first stop.
Betty's Seattle House Demolished
Sadly the house Betty and her family lived in was torn down in 2012. Follow this link to find out more.
The Ravenna Blog - based in North East Seattle "Author's old Roosevelt residence to make way for apartments"
Find Betty Macdonald Online - You've read the books and read this lens... but you want more! Luckily there are other places on the web where you can find out mo
- Betty MacDonald Farm - bed and breakfast at Betty's Vashon Island House
This is a great site to visit if you want to see photos of Betty Macdonald's house on Vashon Island. The house is now a bed and breakfast, so not only can you visit Betty's old house, you can actually stay there! (Of course if you visit to sight-see,
- Friends of Betty Macdonald
The Friends of Betty Macdonald site has a lot of different resources, including information, photos/images, and even a forum and a fanclub.
- Online Encyclopedia of Washington State
The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State features an essay about Betty Macdonald written by Mildred Andrews.
- HeraldNet Newspaper Article - "New owners revive the 'Egg and I' farm"
In 2008 Phil Vogelzang and his family realised their dream for a small-scale farm when they bought a property on Egg And I Road in Chimacum... You guessed right - Betty's old farm! Now that they know about the farm's literary background the family in
Betty Macdonald's 2008 Centenary
2008 marked the 100th anniversary of Betty's birth
Betty came into the world on March 26 of 1908. That year saw her born with many notable contemporaries including Alistair Cooke (journalist creator of 'Letter from America'), William Hartnell (the first Doctor Who), Stephane Grappelli (great jazz musician), Jackie Fields (the boxer), president Lyndon B. Johnson, comedian Milton Berle and cinema stars Rex Harrison, Jimmy Stewart and Bette Davis. I think knowing about the well-known people in Betty's generation helps give us a better idea of the times she lived in.
In commemoration of Betty Macdonald's centenary Lynne Truss (well known for her book Eats, Shoots & Leaves) put together a tribute radio program that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in March 2008.
I happened to catch a great centenary tribute for iconic journalist Alistair Cooke, but sadly didn't manage to hear Lynne Truss's radio show - bet it was great!