Tuesday, November 24, 2009


Betty MacDonald, author of “The Egg and I,” was also the creator of Ma and Pa Kettle. Incredibly shiftless and cheerful, they were living proof that survival can be achieved by pure persistence. Fitness and energy need have nothing to do with it. In fact, the Kettles must have been composites with pseudonyms, which in those days did not send ideological shudders through purist critics. Macdonald set up the structure of her book to contrast the neighborhood extremes: the Kettles on one side of the Macdonald chicken ranch and the equal but opposite uptight and scrubbed Hicks family on other side. The game the author plays is the unexpectedness of Ma Kettle’s generosity and fabulous cooking in the face of an outhouse with no door and flies everywhere, over against the pinched intimidation of Mrs. Birdy Hicks who had everything on her place fed and sterilized and was herself starched and immaculate by 7AM. The progression of the “memoir” is MacDonald’s own steep learning curve of life on the farm. After two years, having achieved prodigious changes and marveled at much local culture or lack thereof, they moved again to a better ranch and the story ends.

It’s an old pattern and one that the people in my childhood dearly loved as they struggled through their own lacks and challenges, with the occasional tiny success to keep them baited along. Lake Woebegone is not that different. A successful current practitioner of this genre is cowboy Ken Overcast, who writes the ongoing saga called Meadow Muffins, a column in which shiftless neighbors work their way along with the help of “barley sandwiches” (beer) and amazing good fortune. Overcast also appears in person to sing and tell the stories live. Emily Carr, the Canadian painter and writer, was a master of this style. (It helps to have a lot of animals.) One of her tricks was to personify objects and Betty does that well, most notably in the case of “Stove” who had more personality (mostly balky) than most people. Two other techniques are incredible hyperbole and unusual words, either localisms and jargon or elevated Latinisms a little out of place.

Writing this way is more ticklish these days because of Political Correctness which doesn’t like us to make fun of Pa Kettle’s lisp or the fact that his child was stunted in infancy by “fits.” In fact, the daughters of MacDonald were nervous enough about her reaction to Indians to write in a foreword that they are CERTAIN she would have taken a different attitude today. Basically, the problem is that Macdonald’s understanding of Indians was formed by Blackfeet in parade mode during her childhood in Butte. The coastal fish Indians of the Washington coast were quite a shock, though her husband, the irrepressible and indefatigable “Bob,” was a great friend of the Red Man and a devoted hunting buddy of Clamface, Crowbar and Geoduck, the Swenson brothers.

That’s another secret of this kind of writing: funny names. And drunkenness, which Bob was in favor of, partly because of the solidarity of getting pie-eyed together. But in another switcheroo, the best of the moonshiners is a teetotaler, so trustworthy that Betty let him babysit her infant. Do you believe all this stuff? I’d be guarded. Journalists never tried to uncover the truth.

What isn’t told is some of the real heartbreak that she is turning into slapstick. She married at 20 to a man who was 31: like me, she was advised that she would appeal to an “older man” who appreciated a firm bosom, strong arms, and a high body temperature. The reality is that this chicken farm enterprise destroyed the marriage and though she doesn’t describe “Bob” in particularly malevolent terms, it’s clear that he didn’t devote as much maintenance to her as he did to the chickens. I can relate. But she gives the book an invented happy ending.

In reality they were divorced in 1935 and he disappeared to Oakland, CA, where he worked as a carpenter until he was stabbed to death in 1951 by the ex-husband of a woman living with him. She had brought her two girls to the household. Bob and Betty had two daughters.

As a single mother, the author pieced along with jobs through the Depression until she was forced to spend 9 months in a sanitorium for the treatment of tuberculosis. In 1942 she married Donald McDonald and they lived on Vashon Island where she wrote most of her books, including childrens’ series, until the couple moved to the Carmel Valley in California in 1956. “The Egg & I,” written ten years after the chicken farm experiment, was an ENORMOUS success and Ma and Pa Kettle went on in nine spinoff movies. Betty died of cancer in 1958, aged 49. By then she was back in Seattle where most of her family lived. Her second husband lived until 1975.

Betty’s sister, Mary Bard, also was a published writer and friends and daughters have written about Betty. One daughter and one sister are still living, if you can believe Wikipedia. There’s quite a bit of information online. They’re sort of an American West Coast McCourt family and all interviewers report aching sides from laughing so much. But also, one thinks of Lucy Maude Montgomery, who turned so much struggle and disappointment into the beloved Anne books but, in spite of the constant hope and love of beauty in the stories, ended up committing suicide.

Why is it that one era will go for the stiff upper lip and the quick quip over the same material that we’ve lately learned to call “misery lit?” Why is it that everyone then -- and Montana ranchers now -- find bone-breaking misadventures and disgraceful drunkenness to be acceptable as funny stories? A slight shift in demographics and the critics go wild with pointing out evil hoaxers among the memoir authors. Sherman Alexie would be indignant at the shenanigans of the fish Indians in MacDonald stories, but uses many of the same techniques of exaggeration, disguise and elocution in his own work.

When asked why Mary Karr is an outstanding memoirist, Susan Cheever (who also writes memoirs) says that it’s about addressing an ordinary situation many people know in a tough-minded way while being very funny and unsparing. Cheever suggests two more ingredients: a unique and appealing voice and, in the end, a measure of transcendence. For Betty MacDonald that transcendence came in the gorgeous mountains of the Washington peninsula, the fabulous abundance of excellent food, and reckless humor learned in the bosom of her family.


Rebecca Clayton said...

Thanks for this fascinating essay! I was very young when I read _The Egg and I_ and certainly didn't think about genre, or even "poetic license." There was just fiction and "nonfiction," and, because our local library had called this the latter, I believed every word was fact (although I knew the Ma and Pa Kettle movies were "not real").

Now I'll have to reexamine the memoirs I've read the last 40 years for their generational tone.

Thanks for your insights.

Betty MacDonald Fan Club said...

Betty MacDonald is very popular all over the world.
Betty MacDonald fan club got fans from 40 countries.
Wolfgang Hampel, author of Betty MacDonald biography interviewed Betty MacDonald's family and friends.
Betty MacDonald's youngest sister Alison Bard Burnett was as witty as her sisters Betty MacDonald and Mary Bard Jensen. She shared the most wonderful family memories.

Maria said...

Thanks for an interesting, thoughtful article. As for fiction v non-fiction (i.e. which parts of Betty's 'memoirs' were true to her life), Anne Wellman looks in some detail at this issue in her recent biography of Betty MacDonald, 'Betty: The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of The Egg and I'.