By Michael Upchurch
Special to The Seattle Times
Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle and I
by Paula Becker
University of Washington Press, 221 pp., $29.95
Seattle writer Betty MacDonald (1907-1958) was a beloved best-selling humorist who wrote about her life with a biting sense of the absurd. But if she’d wanted to, she could have seen it as a dirge.
Consider its ingredients: Her father died when she was 12. Her well-to-do family soon fell into poverty. At 20, she married — and then fled — a man who turned out to be an abusive alcoholic. As a young single mother in 1930s Seattle, she had trouble finding jobs that didn’t instantly evaporate. When she finally landed steady employment, she came down with tuberculosis.
Yet her best accounts of these travails, “The Egg and I,” “The Plague and I” and “Anybody Can Do Anything,” practically cavort off the page. How did she do it?
Seattle author Paula Becker has some answers in her compact, finely crafted biography, “Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I.”
Part of MacDonald’s tough humor derived from her credence in her family’s much-repeated motto, “Don’t be a saddo.” Just as much of it came from her giddy turns of phrase: “At the time I was painting photographs, or working for a gangster or a rabbit grower, I can’t remember which.”
Still, Becker sees MacDonald as more double-edged in life than she was on the page. She also provides good detail on her publishing history (not always smooth) and the libel lawsuits against “Egg” (a tricky business).
Becker, co-author of two books on Seattle’s 1909 and 1962 world’s fairs, first encountered MacDonald as an 8-year-old when she stumbled across her “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” children’s books. Becker later caught up with “The Egg and I” (MacDonald’s account of trying to be a chicken farmer on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s) and then was wholly seduced by “Anybody Can Do Anything,” with its vivid depiction of Depression-era Seattle, and “The Plague and I,” about MacDonald’s run-in with TB.
MacDonald’s family moved constantly before settling in Seattle in 1916 in Laurelhurst (then reached, Becker tells us, via “a steep, one-lane wooden trestle bridge that carried traffic over a marsh”). When her mining-engineer father, Darsie Bard, died suddenly at 41 in 1920, their troubles began.
Becker tells a tale of investment woes and mortgages piled on top of mortgages. Betty and her sister Mary were driven to distraction by their beloved mother’s “utter daffiness with things financial.” The whole family struggled until MacDonald hit the jackpot in 1945 with “Egg.” The book sold more than a million copies and spawned a string of highly successful movies, the first one starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray.The book, translated into languages across the globe, has never gone out of print and still has a devoted international following.
Becker’s account of MacDonald’s post-“Egg” life contains the biggest revelations. MacDonald’s second husband, Don, was a great improvement on her first, but after losing his job at Boeing, he was happy to let his wife be the breadwinner in the family as well as the homemaker, elder-care supervisor and baby-sitter for the whole Bard clan. The sequels to “Egg” had fewer sales, and money again became a problem. By the time of her death at 50 from ovarian cancer, MacDonald was being run ragged.
She didn’t lose her edge, however. In a letter reacting to her cancer diagnosis, she told her literary agent, “I’m not sure I’m enough of a Pollyanna to go whistling through life with a huge ax on the back of my neck.” Other excerpts from her correspondence beg for the publication of her letters.
Becker also mentions an unpublished novel about “wittily drawn characters marooned in a roadside motel in a remote coastal community during a fierce storm.” Let’s hope that University of Washington Press, which is reissuing MacDonald’s out-of-print memoirs, will consider doing the letters and the novel as well.
[Paula Becker,] the author of “Looking for Betty MacDonald,” will appear 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 28, at Seattle’s University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or ubookstore.com).
Michael Upchurch: michaelupchurchauthor.com