Betty MacDonald: A Rare Talent

Frances: … You told me about reading aloud in the house.  Was it my father or your father?

Mary: Oh yes, it was your father.  When I was expecting Jonathan I think, we still lived here, after I was married… after my father died we lived here, he used to read to us in the evening, I remember it was The Egg and I, I don’t know whether you know that book.  I can’t remember who wrote it…

Frances: Betty MacDonald… Betty MacDonald.

Mary: Oh yes, that’s right… we were busy knitting and he was reading to us.  I don’t know whether men still do that…

Mary is the only one of our readers to mention The Egg and I, written by the mid-20th century American humorist Betty MacDonald.  The image of her husband reading aloud from the book has stayed in her memory for around 60 years.  This pleases us because we are among Betty’s fans.  (Her fame has faded, but there are still many of us around.)

The Egg and I, a fictionalised account of Betty’s years on a chicken farm, was a sensation on publication in the USA in 1945 and was adapted into a popular film,  It made its author rich and famous.  ‘A good laugh is to be welcomed always: never more so than at the present, when much gloom and ill-humour stalk abroad’, said the Illustrated London News. Even if Betty’s name is less familiar, the book is still known.  It has apparently never been out of print in America, and the title and the names of two characters, Ma and Pa Kettle, have entered the language.

Cover illustration: The Plague and I

Cover illustration: The Plague and I

In the Reading Sheffield team, we like Egg but we prefer Betty’s second book, The Plague and I (1948).  It doesn’t sound very promising: her year spent recovering from tuberculosis in a strict sanatorium, with few family visits allowed and the threat of death hanging over her.  In fact, Plague is vintage Betty MacDonald, displaying her considerable gifts for observation and characterisation and her wonderfully sharp wit.  Here is the Charge Nurse dealing with a rebellious new patient

She noticed a bare shoulder.  Then turning back the covers, as though she were looking for maggots in a sack of flour, she revealed the rest of the bare and satin-clad Miss Kelly,  Her nostrils swelled almost to bursting point. She said to Granite Eyes [another nurse], ‘Miss Murdock … get a pair of outing flannel pyjamas.’ She turned to Miss Kelly … ‘why have you come here wearing silk (she breathed out heavily as she said this loathsome word so that it came out ‘suh-hilk’) pyjamas and nail polish?’

But (and this is important) Betty does not gloss over the treatments (or lack of them – streptomycin had not then been developed), the apparent harshness of the regime or the deaths of fellow patients.

Kate … explained that she had empyema, an infection of the pleural cavity, and added casually that she was dying.

Betty’s short and sometimes difficult life does not immediately suggest much opportunity for humour (although she might have said she had it no worse than anyone else).  She was born in 1907 or 1908 and died of cancer at the early age of 50.  Her father died when she was a child, and she and her siblings were brought up in Seattle by a loving but unconventional mother.  When she was 20, she married an ex-marine, Bob Heskett, and they started a chicken farm in a remote and poor part of the country (hence The Egg and I).  The work was physically exhausting and there was little intellectual stimulation.  After a few years, the marriage failed and Betty returned, with two small daughters but no means of support, to her mother’s home.  The family struggled financially in the Great Depression and Betty had various poorly-paid and unsatisfactory jobs.  The late 1930s brought tuberculosis and the sanatorium.  In 1942, she married her second husband, Donald MacDonald, and lived with him until her death.

Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray starring in The Egg and I

Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray starring in The Egg and I

Betty wrote all her books* during this second, happier marriage.  The Egg and I appeared first in 1945 and sold a million copies in a year.  The Hollywood film, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, was a hit in 1947, with the hillbilly characters, Ma and Pa Kettle, proving particularly popular.  (The film led to Betty’s being sued for libel by former neighbours who claimed they had been ridiculed.)  Egg was followed by: The Plague and I in 1948; Anybody Can Do Anything (1950) chronicling family life in the Depression; and Onions in the Stew (1955) about life with her second husband and family.

Betty MacDonald is under-rated as humorists often are.  She seems to have operated on the basis of writing about what she knew and remembering that everything is copy. Why is she a good writer?  Without flinching, she grounds the humour she finds in unlikely or unpleasant situations in the reality of those situations.  And her use of language is very precise, yet she pulls off the trick of sounding like someone chatting to you on the bus.  (This is perhaps why our interviewee Mary’s husband could successfully read her aloud.)  Taken together, her books are a chronicle of her times, but also a re-imagining of those times, where the humour is used to deflect the pain and stress she knew.

We wish Betty MacDonald were better known today.


(There is brief footage of Betty MacDonald on YouTube and information about her here.  And for all we said above about Betty not being well-known now, two books about her are appearing in 2016: Betty, The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of The Egg and I, by Anne Wellman; and Looking for Betty MacDonald, by Paula Becker-Brown.)

* In addition to the list above, Betty MacDonald also wrote children’s books, including the Mrs Piggle-Wiggle series.