The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

31021280When Betty MacDonald married a marine and moved to a small chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, she was largely unprepared for the rigors of life in the wild. With no running water, no electricity, a house in need of constant repair, and days that ran from four in the morning to nine at night, the MacDonalds had barely a moment to put their feet up and relax. And then came the children. Yet through every trial and pitfall—through chaos and catastrophe—this indomitable family somehow, mercifully, never lost its sense of humor.

A beloved literary treasure for more than half a century, Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I is a heartwarming and uproarious account of adventure and survival on an American frontier.

Review:

I was excited to find that the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books wrote a memoir about chicken farming in the Pacific Midwest, complete with “The Enduring Classic” blazed on the cover.  But this doesn’t feel like a classic at all, with MacDonald’s sharp wit aimed at people who least deserve the jabs.

She moved to the wilds of Washington with her husband, determined to be the best wife she can by doing whatever makes her husband happy, no questions asked.  Let’s count that as Anger Runneth Over #1 – woman with zero agency.  She hates the chicken farming her husband loves and seems to find no joy in life on the mountain. Sometimes the barbs are funny and telling of how awful she found things.

In my little Death and Food Record book, I, in my prankish way, wrote opposite the date and number of deaths; “Chickenpox-Eggzema and Suicide.” When he checked the records, Bob noted this fun-in-our-work, and unsmiling erased it and neatly wrote, “Not determined.” Men are quite humorless about their own business.

But these moments are few and far between. More often MacDonald lights into her neighbors and people in town, judging them by her city standards of culture and erudition.  Whole passages are written phonetically to exaggerate their manner of speaking and, apparently, the humor.

Charlie wath butchering and I athk him for the thpare ribth becauthe they kilt two pigth and I knowed that the two of them couldn’t eat all them thpare ribth, but that thtingy thkunk thaid, “The reathon I’M BUTCHERING, MR. KETTLE, is becauthe I need the meat,” and I wath tho mad I forgot the egg math I had borried.

Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed.  This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.

It’s not that MacDonald is incapable of nuance – if she gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother the book would be much more readable.

Gammy was patient, impatient, kind, caustic, witty, sad, wise, foolish, superstitious, religious, prejudiced, and dear.  She was, in short, a grandmother who is, after all, a woman whose inconsistencies have sharpened with use.

Instead we run into Anger Runneth #3, her view and treatment of the Native Americans of the area.  I went into the book knowing that racism of this sort would be an issue and prepared to see the book as of its time, but it’s hateful and awful even for the 1940s.

Little red brothers or not, I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.

It hurts me so much to even type that.

There are a couple of chapters that are funny if separated from all the rage-inducing passages but I doubt it’s worth the effort.  Consider The Egg and I a classic you can safely skip.

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6 thoughts on “The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald

  1. Really? That’s all you got out of a book that sold over 1,000,000 copies in its first 10 months in print back in 1945? A book that was adapted to stage, radio, and screen, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.

    Betty MacDonald’s writing is often compared to David Sedaris, so if you don’t like him, then yes, you might want to give Betty a pass, too. But your review takes the book out of context and out of it’s historical setting, and takes offense when Betty makes fun of others while not mentioning that the biggest butt of Betty’s jokes was Betty. You take offense to things that at the time were not offensive, even to the characters she was depicting – the family that she based the Kettles on at first bragged about the fact that she was writing about them, and later sued Betty when there was a chance of financial gain for them.

    I think my main objection to your review is that you castigate Betty’s humor while not mentioning that she is frequently self-deprecating. You write:

    “Instead of poking fun at a situation she’s grinding people into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed. This closed mindedness and snobbery is Anger Runneth Over #2.”

    I disagree strongly with this assessment. I think you became offended early on and maintained that attitude as you read, and so you didn’t notice when “gave other people the consideration she reserved for her grandmother” – and she did. For instance, Betty talks about her failed attempts to make bread:

    “Bread was my first defeat and I lowered my standard a notch. By the end of the first winter, in view of my long record of notable failures, I would probably have had to retrieve this standard with a post-hole digger.”

    and after making fun of herself, she writes about seeking help from Ma Kettle:

    “Mrs. Kettle had fifteen children and baked fourteen loaves of bread, twelve pans of rolls, and two coffee cakes every other day. She was a very kind neighbor, a long-suffering wife and mother and a hard worker, but she was earthy and to the point. She picked my stillborn loaf from the table, ripped it open, smelled it, made a terrible face and tossed it out the back door to her pack of mangy, ever hungry mongrels. “God-damn stuff stinks,” she said companionably, wiping her hands on her large dirty front.”

    If Betty MacDonald’s use of phonetics to give an impression of the way her neighbors talked is insults you, then I guess you don’t like “Brer Rabbit” or Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” or more recent works like “The Help”?

    As for her racist comments, those are lamentable, but also a mixed bag and, again, within the historical context were more acceptable. We don’t have to agree with her to appreciate her writing, and anyone who has read her other memoirs would know that Betty MacDonald wasn’t a racist. I’ve read – and I don’t know if this is true or not – that her original manuscript didn’t have much about American Indians in it, but it did have a lot of humor at her husband’s expense. Her publisher made her take that out because they thought that the audience wouldn’t be receptive to it, and so she rewrote and much of what she’d originally aimed at her by then ex-husband was now taken out on the local Indians. She did leave her husband, who was a mean drunk by all accounts, so there might be some truth in that.

    One other note about Betty – your review makes it sound like Betty led a life of privilege, however, that’s not really true, either. Her father was a successful mining engineer and when he was alive, they had a decent income. But they moved frequently and often lived in very small towns and rural areas. Her family to Seattle when she was ten years old and her father died not long after that. From that point on, they struggled.

    Betty memoirs were published long after the events she depicts. When she wrote them, she wasn’t rich or privileged – she was a working mom with two girls to support. She had survived a bad marriage, the depression (and anyone who has read “Anybody Can Do Anything” will know about her and her family’s struggles through that period), and tuberculosis (an account of that can be found in “The Plague and I”). She figured her first book might sell 400 copies if she was lucky, but instead it struck a chord and sold millions. It’s been translated into over 30 languages and has never been out of print.

    You are, of course, entitled to your opinion, however, I think you’ve done a great American author a great disservice in your review. I assume that my response will be vetted and hope you’ll post it, but I won’t expect it.

    1. Hello Carlyn,

      Thank you for leaving a comment explaining your views. Despite your assumption (and let’s remember what assumptions make) I’m glad to engage in respectful debate. I will admit that I become wary when a comment is longer than the original review (in this case, nearly three times as long) but you make some good points that I’d like to respond to.

      First of all, in many places you talk about MacDonald’s other books, her life circumstances, and other things outside of the scope of The Egg and I. In general I support the idea that the author is dead and critique the work in front of me, not a person’s entire life. I have no idea if she was a racist and am glad to give the benefit of the doubt, but as you point out the racist comments in this book are “lamentable”.

      Secondly, you include an anecdote you are not sure of the validity of. If you cannot be bothered to verify it, neither can I.

      MacDonald is self-deprecating and that’s a good point that did not make it in my review. Thank you for calling me on it.

      “Really? That’s all you got out of a book that sold over 1,000,000 copies in its first 10 months in print back in 1945?”

      Yes. Popularity does not equal quality, and both are subject to change over time.

      As for the use of phonetics, I have a problem when it’s the basis of a joke. Flavor, providing an insight into a character, showing the era, and what have you, is fine, but I’d rather have situations presented as laughable, not the way people speak. See Hari Kondablou on why he doesn’t use accents in his comedy.

      Re: privilege – by being a white, cis, able-bodied woman MacDonald indeed had many privileges. Privilege goes beyond money, and I’d recommend reading this article to see where you stand on your own.

      Thanks again for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment, and if there’s anything you’d like to discuss further feel free to reply – now that you’ve been approved once your further comments should show automatically.

  2. I should say right off the top that I am unaware of the rule regarding comments and the length of the original review or post one is commenting on. I gather that it is suspicious if one writes “too” much – not possibly an indication of the writer’s interest in the topic. Please enlighten me as to this comment/reply length rule. I’m eager to learn. In the meantime, as this is a completely new “rule” to me, I’ll just have to risk breaking it again.

    Kazen, my tone in my original rebuttal to your review was unnecessarily personal and for that I apologize. I was foolishly offended by your dismissal of an author you obviously knew nothing about. To judge your “review” because you have limited it to your gut reaction and nothing else – not the quality of the writing, nor the era it was published in, nor any part of the author’s history – could be said to be unfair.

    However, you can’t hide behind “Death of the Author Theory.” As the essay you so kindly shared states: “Despite the theory’s title, Barthes never says that the author’s own interpretation is completely unimportant—just that it is only one of many possible interpretations. THIS ALSO DOES NOT NECESSARILY MEAN THAT EVERY INTERPRETATION IS EQUALLY VALID; AN INTERPRETATION THAT IS BASED ON A FLAWED, INCOMPLETE, AND CONFUSED READING OF THE TEXT WILL ALWAYS BE FLAWED, INCOMPLETE, AND CONFUSED REGARDLESS OF HOW MUCH BARTHES’ ESSAY IS RAISED IN PROTEST.”

    As for my assumptions, I should have been clearer and offered a source.

    I do know that MacDonald was in a difficult marriage and was asked to downplay her marriage difficulties by her editors, but it’s unclear whether some stories/threads were reworked with their focus more on the local Indians or not:

    “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.”

    This article goes on to note:

    “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.’” https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/behind-her-classic-mrs-piggle-wiggle-books-the-dark-life-of-betty-macdonald/2016/10/14/23005c46-9071-11e6-9c85-ac42097b8cc0_story.html?utm_term=.0a40a377d4b7

    As for her importance, well, I’m not the only person to recognize it, as Paula Becker’s recent biography, “Looking for Betty MacDonald” and the re-release of the three memoirs that had been out of print attest. I like the assessment provided in Samantha Hoekstra’s doctoral thesis: The Egg and Us: Contextualization and Historicization of Betty MacDonald’s Works:
    http://fsu.digital.flvc.org/islandora/object/fsu%3A185262

    “As history continues to trend towards the incorporation of interdisciplinary sources, it becomes a fitting place to champion one of the “lost voices” of American culture. This thesis seeks to establish Betty MacDonald not only as a subject worthy of academic attention but also as a historically significant American. Her continued popularity over nearly seventy years and across international boundaries suggests a strong element of realism in American pragmatic humor that provides a connective thread between disparate eras and countries. Her ability to cross class lines and act as a bridge-figure between rural and urban America provides a more complete picture of the country at mid-century. Through the use of MacDonald’s four autobiographical works, the film version of her first book, audio interviews, the Betty Bard MacDonald papers from University of Washington’s special collections, WorldCat searches, census data analysis, friends’ memoirs, and foreign book jackets, this thesis attempts to reevaluate MacDonald’s accepted place in the domestic humor genre, and suggests that she deserves a wider scope of inquiry relevant to her place in American humor and American history.”

    And I have to mention the phonetics again and refer you to the quote from the essay on “The Author Is Death Theory” above. You accuse MacDonald of using phonetic accents as a way to make fun of people, but I disagree. American writers in the early part of the 20th Century were very interested in conveying how people spoke – they wanted to capture the different dialects, accents and idioms of average Americans. A notable example is Ring Lardner’s writing, but this is true for a host of American writers of the time.

    And thanks for the link to Hari Kondabolu – he’s funny.

    As for the privilege of being a “white, cis, able-bodied woman” in the early part of the last century, I suggest you take the time to learn a bit more history. You apparently have no idea of what women of any color experienced prior to the liberation movements of the 60s and 70s, never mind the lack of rights and agency anyone without money experienced (as I mentioned, MacDonald’s family struggled financially after her father died), nor do you factor in the impact of two major wars and a world wide depression on the lives of people living through it. Talk about checking your privileges!

    As for my privileges, I suspect that I have a lot more in common with the folk you think Betty is “grinding … into the dirt, holding them at fault for being different or not being given the same opportunities she has enjoyed” than I have with you. Not saying I don’t have privileges compared to some other poor souls, but I’ve had my share of poverty and abuse.

    1. Hello Carlyn,

      I’m sorry your comment did not show automatically – I think the links may have tripped the spam filter, but I’m not exactly sure. I approved it as soon as I got the notification. I did not perceive your post as overly personal so no worries there, and I hope that you do not find my replies overly personal, either.

      There are no rules to comment length that I’m aware of, but in my experience long comments come from authors who do not like how I reviewed their book or others who have an ax to grind. It has made me wary over time, but as you have shown long comments can indeed be productive.

      As far as the Death of the Author goes, it appears you have missed an important phrase (emphasis mine):

      “An interpretation that is based on a flawed, incomplete, and confused reading OF THE TEXT will always be flawed…”

      In a way missing this phrase proves the point, does it not?

      I thank you for providing links and background material – MacDonald lead an interesting life! – but it goes way beyond the text. My previous assertion still stands: all of the information I need is right there on the page. The additional biographical insights do not change the fact that reading The Egg and I was not an enjoyable experience for me. I do not believe that I need to know the intimate details of an author’s life to decide if I like a book.

      A quick look around my site will show that I’m not a historian nor a scholar. I write reviews, which are opinions, sometimes based on the gut reactions you do not seem to care for. It would be a disservice to my readers to say, “This is a great book and really important because people at the time loved the author!” when the story made me mad and is not an experience I would like to repeat.

      It looks like we’re coming at this from two entirely different angles, Carlyn. I’m writing about my experience reading a book and if I would recommend it to others, while you are concentrating on the significance of the book and judging quality by historical merits. Neither is right or wrong, but they are at cross purposes. My blog is a collection of reviews of books, not lives, so I continue to stand by my post.

      There are a couple more points I would like to make before closing. Re: phoetics, we may just have to agree to disagree here. You feel it’s flavor, I feel it’s unkind parody, and I doubt we’re going to change each other’s minds on the point.

      I’m glad you liked Hari Kondabolu!

      And lastly, I’m not sure you read and understood the article about privilege and believe it or not, I do know some history. Finch defines privilege as gaining “an unearned advantage, in comparison to other people – by no fault of my own, but rather, because of prejudice”. Did MacDonald have as much privilege as rich men at the time? No, but she still had advantages. She could move about in the world easily because she was a white, cis woman. She did not have to worry about discrimination due to a disability or disfigurement. She had the right to vote, which black women in some Southern states couldn’t freely do until the 1960s. (Wikipedia) Does this mean she didn’t suffer? No, of course not. But she still enjoyed advantages that were ingrained in the system, through no fault of her own. This is the privilege of which I speak, and to end I’d like to quote a few lines from the article I linked:

      “What ‘Checking Your Privilege’ is Not
      1. It’s not personal – and it’s not an insult
      2. It doesn’t mean you haven’t struggled
      3. It’s not a time to defend yourself

      Okay, So What is Checking Your Privilege?
      1. It’s a time to reflect and investigate
      2. It’s a moment to examine your impact
      3. It’s ‘tuning in’ instead of opting out
      If you’re being asked to check your privilege, your instinct might be to defend yourself, to talk about your own struggles, or derail the conversation entirely.
      But it’s important to push through that gut reaction and, instead, tune into what’s being said.”

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