Seattle historian Paula Becker wrote recently for HistoryLink.org about the opportunity she had to walk through the one-time home of author Betty MacDonald just before it was torn down in July. We got a chance to talk with her about it and about the Seattle/Vashon author’s under-documented place in history despite having written four memoirs in her fifty years and having a cult-like following in some places around the world. (It was recently suggested that Seattle name a ferry after her!)
MacDonald is best known for her 1945 memoir/satire The Egg and I, about living on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula. Though the book found national acclaim (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), it wasn’t popular with the neighbors, some of whom were unhappy with MacDonald’s portrayal of them (she did change their names). MacDonald later won a libel suit against her by some of the families, including the couple she’d dubbed Ma and Pa Kettle. In addition to her memoirs, MacDonald wrote a series of children’s books called Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, which Becker says stand up pretty well today.
Becker is a staff historian for HistoryLink.org, the free online encyclopedia of Washington state history. Her essays document the dance marathon craze of the 1920s and 1930s, the war-effort knitting on the homefront during World Wars I and II and MacDonald’s career, among many other topics. Becker co-wrote (with Alan J. Stein) the books Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington’s First World’s Fair and The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy.
NWBL editor Jamie Passaro interviewed Becker about her fascination with MacDonald, who died in 1958 but left much to talk about.
JP: What sparked your interest in Betty MacDonald and what has held it?
PB: I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and didn’t visit Seattle until I was grown. I have two very early memories of Washington state, though, both of which seem significant to me in retrospect. One is of the “Grown In Washington” stickers I peeled off the apples in my lunches during elementary school. The other is the little bio blurb on the flap of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books I loved to check out of the public library. The flap copy stated that Betty grew up in Seattle. I think it was my first glimmering of an understanding that this place, which has become so important to me since I made it my home in 1992, existed.
I knew the phrase “The Egg And I” from, I guess, just the general culture, and eventually I figured out that my beloved Piggle-Wiggles and a book called The Egg And I were written by the same person. I read Egg— I’m not really sure when, but sometime in my early 20s—and wasn’t wild about it.
Meanwhile, once I’d moved here and starting learning about and then writing about Seattle history, I discovered that Betty MacDonald had another book called The Plague And I that described her fight against tuberculosis, and that the hospital where she was treated still exists. I read Plague and found it very honest and moving, and did some research and found the hospital where Betty was treated and drove around figuring out which buildings were which, according to Betty’s memoir.
I then read Anybody Can Do Anything, which is her memoir of how she and her family got through the grim, lean years of the 1930s with family loyalty, grit and a sense of humor. This book I loved, and love.
I read her fourth memoir, Onions In The Stew, which is set mostly on Vashon. I began researching all of the places Betty, her sister Mary (who wrote three memoirs and three children’s books), her mother, and other family members had lived—mostly using Seattle city directories and King County property records. I loved the houses, loved that Betty and Mary both described their homes so interestingly and fondly, and—especially—that I could visit most of those homes (outside, usually) myself. So, basically, time travel.
JP: Are you working on a book about her?
PB: I’m not working on a book on Betty right now, although I may have a high-end chapbook project coming together soon.
Betty’s work and life are rich sources of material on many important topics—women, nature, the Pacific Northwest region, the 1920s-30s-40s-50s, male-female relations, on and on. I would like to see lots of scholarship on this, as well as personal responses to her work.
I have been able to shepherd a few Betty items (letters) into the archives of the University of Washington, and it is my fervent hope that anyone who holds personal papers, etc, that have significance to Betty’s story will consider placing them in an appropriate archive so that they can be used by scholars.
There has never been a Betty MacDonald biography. I’ve heard several times that her surviving daughter, Anne, is working on a Betty bio. Betty’s dear friend Blanche Caffiere wrote a memoir about Betty and about her own life called Much Laughter, A Few Tears. It offers many insights into the dynamics of Bard family life during Betty’s teen years, and I am very fond of it.
JP: I stumbled onto a Seattle Times column written in celebration of what would have been MacDonald’s 100th birthday in 2008, and in it, the book critic laments that there ought to be a biography. Strange that there isn’t given her national fame and what an interesting, sometimes controversial life she led.
PB: I agree that there should be a Betty MacDonald biography, based both on her great success as a writer and on her interesting life. That said, I think there are several reason why—so far—no one has written a Betty biography. One issue is the scarcity of archival materials currently available—by which I mean letters, diaries, business records, etc. There are a few materials, but if (or as—I am hopeful) more materials come to light, either from family members, from collectors, from publishers archiving their own materials, etc, it will greatly help tease out the details of MacDonald’s actual story, as compared to the account she left in her four memoirs.
This brings up another issue, which is the complexity of writing biographically about someone whose written record is personal memoir/autobiography. Memoir is an interesting and slippery genre, I feel, and I think that the so-called “contract” between the reader and the writer as to what parts of memoir are factual has shifted over time, and since Betty’s time. The challenge would be to take her wonderful, sparkling memoirs, bump them up against her actual life details as can be discovered through deep historical research, note where they match and where they diverge, and hopefully explore why Betty chose to include and to exclude certain aspects of her life. This is do-able, and would be a fantastic challenging project, but it would be a much different task than writing a biography of someone whose books were marketed as fiction.
JP: MacDonald’s memoir The Egg and I has been in print continuously since 1945. What makes it so enduring?
PB: People around the world recognize the power that comes from a family using its collective strength to endure. Egg is humorous in surprising, often self-deprecating ways, and Betty’s picture of the foibles of her rural neighbors resonates in some way for almost anyone who didn’t grow up in total isolation. Once Egg was published, people constantly told Betty that their own neighbor/father-in-law/mother-in-law etc etc must have been her inspiration for various characters. Also, even a casual reading of the book lets you know that Betty was desperately lonely, that life was terribly difficult at many times, but, because she is a really fiendishly good writer, she finds a funny half-a-beat-off way of pulling you into the story.
JP: I just read your piece about the recent demolishing of the house MacDonald lived in in the Roosevelt neighborhood of Seattle during the 1930′s. You were one of the last people to set foot in the house before the backhoe came in, and I love these lines of yours from that experience:
The fireplace was intact, more whole than anything else in the entire house, and I wanted it, wanted it all, to salvage all of it, or even just a brick, but it was so, so solid. I snapped a picture (my flash briefly illuminating the dark), then another, like an underwater camera snaking through Titanic, documenting a time long lost. I took the moment, imagining the Bards, their fires in that hearth, their closeness, gathered round.
You ended up taking some doorknobs and a window. What were you hoping to find? What would have been the ultimate Betty MacDonald treasure?
PB: Thank you. That was exactly how it felt. Doorknobs were the thing I was pretty sure I’d find, since they are rarely replaced or updated (especially in a house that is being let run to ruin). I figured they’d probably be there, and that I’d be able to take them off and carry them easily. I had to leave a bunch of doors—they were lying around, and also still hanging in some doorways—because they were solid wood and each weighed about 80 pounds.
It was difficult enough to navigate in the dark behind goggles and face mask—I’d probably have fallen through one of the holes in the floorboards if I’d tried to drag out doors. I was very happy to be able to rescue the windows—metaphors, of course, and also something practical that was certainly there when the Bards owned the house.
I really hoped the mirrored door to the medicine cabinet would be there, because when I went through the house once before I’d noticed it and thought of the family’s faces reflected back. It was gone, however. I didn’t mention it in my essay, but I took one more thing: a heavy brass heating vent cover. It was very heavy, but I managed to get it out. It was already pried off the wall, so maybe someone had tried to get it earlier. It was in the room with the fireplace and covered with many layers of paint. I’ve cleaned those off, and it is my surprise treasure from that expedition.
JP: You were really fascinated by that house—as you put it, you ‘lurked’ past it many times—and as you walk through it for the last time, you have all of these vivid memories of what Betty and her characters were doing in the rooms you visited. It reminds me a little of the pilgrimage so many people make every summer to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s home. As a historian, why do you think we’re so drawn to these places?
PB: Yes, I agree with the Laura Ingalls Wilder comparison— I enjoyed Wendy McClure’s A Wilder Life about her fascination with those sites, and also Gabrielle Burton’s Searching For Tamsen Donner. I think that many historians and, of course, biographers have a very personal relationship with the physical places where their subjects lived.
My knowledge about Betty grew alongside my understanding of the history of the homes, schools, streetcar lines, shops, etc., where she (and other Seattlites, of course) moved through their days, which receded (as do all of our days) into history. I, and all of Betty’s readers, are very lucky that she has left us the breadcrumbs to follow back to that time, those places—to get home.
JP: For those of us who are new to MacDonald’s books, why should we read her today? Where would you start?
PB: I recommend starting with Anybody Can Do Anything. Even better, start with Egg, but stop when she gets married. Then jump back and read Anybody, then Plague. You will really know Betty and her family by now. Then pick up and finish Egg—you will now have a highly tidied up view of her first marriage. Then read Onions In The Stew, and you’ll know a little about her second marriage. Remember that these books are autobiographical to greatly varying degrees—not accounts she’d probably swear to in a court of law.
Don’t forget the four Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books! They stand up very well, and give such a good demonstration of how well Betty could just toss off these wonderful little gems of tales—I imagine her shaking off like a dog coming in out of the rain, and all the Piggle Wiggle stories flying off every way—they feel that easy.
JP: What’s your favorite book of hers?
PB: My favorite book of Betty’s is Anybody Can Do Anything, by far. My favorite chapter is Chapter 9. I can almost smell her 1930s Seattle autumn twilight, and she certainly helps me picture it.
JP: Betty was known for her wry, self-deprecating humor. To close, will you share a favorite line or two of hers?
PB: Well, I love this description of how difficult it was for her to cope with gloomy Northwest weather:
“It rained and rained and rained and rained and rained. It drizzled—misted—drooled—spat—poured—and just plain rained . . . Along about November I began to forget when it hadn’t been raining and became as one with all the characters in all of the novels about rainy seasons, who rush around banging their heads against the walls, drinking water glasses of straight whiskey and moaning, ‘The rain! The rain! My God, the rain!’ ” (The Egg And I, p. 67).
I also like this description in The Plague And I, which conveys instantly the love and pain and terror Betty’s family must have felt when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Betty’s sister Mary has taken her to the doctor, and Betty has just received the bad news, which was (and sometimes still is) akin to a death sentence for many people:
“Mary came in then and in five minutes told me so many big lies about tuberculosis, who had it, and so forth, that I was immediately cheered up. She said that practically everyone on the street had tuberculosis, that she couldn’t go to a party without seeing at least four far-gone cases, that actually it had gotten to the point where she was ashamed to admit she hadn’t t.b. because everyone who was anyone—look at Robert Louis Stevenson and Chopin—had t.b. Anyway with or without t.b. she wished someone would order her to go on complete bedrest—she hadn’t had any sleep for so long that the muscles in her eyelids had atrophied. She thought a slight case of t.b. should be the aftermath of every pregnancy so that the poor mother could get some sleep. She thought a lot of things and she thought them out loud, which was soothing and made it unnecessary for me to talk and so I didn’t cough all the way home.” (p. 35).