Monday, July 19, 2010

Me and The Egg and I

It would be impossible for me to exaggerate how much I love this book. My 1946 library copy had to be retrieved from "in storage" by the librarian, which is a shame. How does anyone ever find a book that's "in storage" if they're not actively looking? This book is worth actively looking for. Don't be deceived by the dated and saccharine jacket photo: Betty MacDonald's autobiography is as vivid and tart and edgy as anything I've ever read.

MacDonald is probably best known today as the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series for children. But she was more famous once upon a time for this best-selling memoir about the early years of her first marriage, when she and her husband Bob moved to a chicken ranch in the mountains of rural coastal Washington, miles from their nearest neighbors -- who happened to be Ma and Pa Kettle. Yes, that Ma and Pa Kettle. Here's MacDonald's description of her initial visit to the Kettle home:

"Mrs. Kettle, a mountainously fat woman in a very dirty housedress, waddled to the corner of the porch and called cordially 'Come in, come in, glad to see you!' but as I drew timidly abreast of the porch my nostrils were dealt such a stinging blow by the outhouse lurking doorless and unlovely directly across from it that I almost staggered. Apparently used to the outhouse, Mrs. Kettle kicked me a little path through the dog bones and chicken manure on the back porch and said, "We was wonderin' how long afore you'd git lonesome and com down to see us," then ushered me into the kitchen, which was enormous, cluttered and smelled deliciously of fresh bread and hot coffee."

While that's not the most generous or flattering description (see criticisms of MacDonald below), she develops genuine affection for the Kettles and her portrait of the couple is, I thought, curiously sweet. She has little use for her other neighbors, however, even less use for the chickens, and, one begins to suspect, no use at all for Bob. I make her sound sour and negative, which she isn't. She's smart and funny and outward-looking and has such a genius for describing scenery and people that it came as a surprise when I realized she is also writing about loneliness and a deeply unhappy marriage. The book is breezy and full of "high humor," but it is also quietly sad.

I was so taken with The Egg and I that I went and read all sorts of background material. It turns out that not everyone loves The Egg and I.

Two lines of dissent:

1. Some readers think MacDonald is a snob. They are absolutely correct. She thinks she's smarter than the Kettles and every other bumpkin she meets, and you know what? I'm pretty sure she was. I can see why some readers are annoyed, but her attitude did not bother me. I give her a pass on this one.

2. Some readers think MacDonald is a racist. Sadly, her depictions of Indians are indeed hideous and boil down to: dirty, drunk, shiftless. She was narrow and unsympathetic and stubborn in her prejudices and though she doesn't write much about Native Americans, when she does it will make you flinch. There was one passage that almost made me put down the book.

That said, it's not fair to judge her by contemporary standards. People of her generation did not reflexively try to understand the social and historical factors that might lead to, say, an epidemic of alcoholism among Native Americans. They did not refrain from making racial generalizations. If MacDonald's ethnic biases are going to drive you crazy, which they might, you should definitely skip chapter 16.

Other than that, it's a great book. The Egg and I: A-.

Thanks to the two people who missed me enough to write comments. I am touched. My children have been in New England forever and they will be in New England for weeks yet to come. While at first it was restful, I am now bereft. I will try to dredge up material to write about because losing my children AND my blogging rhythm is just too much to bear.

22 comments:

  1. Ha, I love that book too! I have my Grandpa's copy. She is a great writer, she makes me laugh out loud, and I love her descriptions of the dishes she makes from the "guts" the locals won't eat.

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  2. Tipsy, you are one of my daily stops (right after Dear Abby). I did miss you, but don't have any idea how to write you other than comments, and putting a "WHERE ARE YOU?" on your last one seemed...Rude. :) Should a total stranger let you know its time to start blogging again? Well, if your answer is yes, then know I want to keep reading what you write! :) I also think you should work on a novel because you are a very entertaining writer. That being said, I watched the movie "The Egg and I" and will see if I can find a copy of the book, based solely on your recommendation. (How is that for you being a powerful writer? LOL!) Best, Ida

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  3. Georgia Jewel7/20/10, 6:16 AM

    I missed you, but I didn't want to nag. Luckily, I read Entertainment Weekly where you had a review. (unless I'm mistaken).

    How are the baby goats?

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  4. Yay -- I've been checking your blog daily and missed your posts.

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  5. I'm with Georgia Jewel. We all need vacations, even from fun routines. Thanks for the book tip!

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  6. Betty was a wonderful writer and while she thought she was apart from her society she was still a part. So yes, she said things we find offensive.

    But I laugh every time I read her books. Onions in the Stew isn't as funny, but it gives more background to the Northwest of the 30s and 40s. You can still see signs of the country she grew up by poking around the small towns and backwaters of Western Washington. A lot of place still remember what it was like "afore the Interstate came through."

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  7. If you're lucky, your library has even deeper storage, out of which they can produce "The Plague and I" and "Anybody Can Do Anything." Plague is MacDonald's account of her treatment for tuberculosis (in those days, hospitalization for complete bed rest) and Anybody is her life in between the marriages in The Egg & I and Onions in the Stew. I wish they were more widely available!

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  8. I am very glad you are back. I too am a daily reader and check up on you and have missed your musings.

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  9. So glad you're back. You left a hole in my day.

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  10. I'm new to the whole blog thing - but I have to say The Tipsy Baker has become a fast favorite! I think you could write about cleaning bathroom grout and make it insightful and entertaining. I've been checking back daily, hoping to see something new from you, but didn't feel it was my place to demand you resume your postings.

    That being said, I'm SO glad to see you back, and can't wait to read more in the future!

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  11. When my kids went to the beach for a week, I cried constantly. It was RIDICULOUS. For real, when I saw kids their ages, I cried. When I saw food they liked, I cried. When I looked at a clock, I cried.

    It was embarrassing. Now they're back, and holy cow are they noisy.

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  12. Tipsy, there may a genetic component at work here -- The Egg And I was one of your paternal grandmother's favorite movies.

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  13. I feel sure that you weren't seeking affirmation with that comment, but I can't help but give some anyway! I love your blog and check it daily. Your posts make me laugh and think. Keep it up!

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  14. launderwood7/20/10, 5:59 PM

    I'm with Lindsay. My daughter is gone about 3 weeks during the summer, but not consecutive weeks. The first week is fun. I get to watch TV, stay up late, eat food I like, etc. The next week is ok, but I start to get restless on Wednesday. The final week is torture! When is she going to get home? What is she doing now? I totally understand.

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  15. Welcome back. I was starting to worry....

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  16. Kids away with a trusted caretaker? Score 1 for you. Miss them? Sure. But lack of creativity? No! Enjoy the elaborate, time-consuming meals that you can now approach like a first date with your husband. I think it's great!

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  17. So happy you are back blogging! Missed your posts very much.

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  18. I love The Egg and I too, but think The Plague and I is even funnier. I see previous commenters have already listed the rest of Betty MacDonald's autobiographical books, so I'll just reiterate how worth seeking out they are.

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