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Why I Read this book
I like old movies, and years ago I had seen The Egg and I with Claudette Colbert. Of course, that was before the Internet, when I was still wandering around in the dark not knowing that a lot of my favorite movies were based on books, especially the old ones. Until Amazon.com got around to giving us access to pretty much every book in the world, in many cases the movies remained more well known.
Recently, I was rooting around somewhere on the Internet, and I discovered that The Egg and I is just one of several memoirs that MacDonald wrote…and that the other ones were back in print. And available digitally through one of my libraries, which is important right now, while COVID 19 has shut down the physical libraries.
But you know what excites me even more? Finding out that this Betty MacDonald is also the author of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle series. I loved those books when I was a kid, and the chance to compare MacDonald’s work for adults with her work for children has been a hoot.
Out of MacDonald’s four memoirs, I chose to read Anybody Can Do Anything, partly because I’m at a point in my life where sometimes I feel like I can not do anything (I’m in a transition) and partly because this book is set during The Depression, and some folks say we might have another one because of COVID-19. If that happens, I want to be prepared.
What makes a book a memoir?
Even though I enjoy reading memoirs, I hesitate to use that term for these books because somehow, when I think of “memoir”, I think of something verrrrry Serious and verrrrry Important.
The thing I like about MacDonald’s work is that she doesn’t take herself seriously at all. She also seems to have a “take life by the minute” attitude that I like a lot.
So I am going to invent a new term: comic memoir. That’s what these are.
If it’s not a new term, don’t tell me. I like to think that I’ve made things up even though I should be old enough to know that there is nothing new under the sun.
Now, the bad part about these books is that MacDonald doesn’t tell you about the stuff going on in the background. For example, Anybody Can Do Anything starts with her leaving her husband, but then said husband is never heard from again.
On the other hand, that’s good. She doesn’t bog us down with the stuff that’s going to make us even more depressed.
I would be interested to read The Plague and I, because that’s about her having TB, which I would think would be hard to make lighthearted, but it’s very possibly the perfect book for cheering someone up.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle
I have never been a big fan of anything with magic in it, although admittedly I can magical realism better than straight up fantasy. Having said that, I have always liked Mrs. PIggle Wiggle, and upon rereading some of the chapters, I can see that it’s possible her brisk style that appeals me, both in her writing for adults and for children.
Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is sort of a nanny/grandma like figure…someone who knows how to sort of live in the children’s world…when to appeal to their imaginations and when to appeal to their desire to grow up and make sense of the world…but also how to get children to act nicely with a very simple trick: anything that the children do, the children HAVE to do over and over and over until they are completely sick of it. You know, the way that grandpa’s used to cure their sons of sneaking cigarettes by making them smoke until they get sick? Ever heard of that?
The funny thing about these books is that they are available in audio book, but they are not available in Kindle.
The other interesting thing is that MacDonald wrote each of the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books right after one of her books for adults. What a real nerd would do, and believe me, I would try it if the libraries weren’t closed, is reading one of her adult “comic memoirs” alongside the correct Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, just to see if there is any crossover.
If I had a child around with whom to share Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, I definitely would.
Betty MacDonald wrote the first five Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books. The fifth, Happy Birthday, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle, was completed and published in 2007 by MacDonald’s daughter after MacDonald’s death in 1958. Subsequent books have been written by another author in collaboration with MacDonald’s great-granddaughter.
The original editions of these books were illustratred by Hilary Knight, whose work you may recognize from the Eloise books.
Anybody Can Do Anything
Anybody Can Do Anything is the story of MacDonald’s life with her children, her mother, and her siblings while living in Seattle during the Depression. It begins with what is quite possibly the funniest story I have ever read about MacDonald’s growing up as the younger sister of Mary of the enormous lies. MacDonald uses this chapter to show us sister Mary’s unique perspective on life, and also just what a genius she has always been at getting her siblings to do what she wanted, firm in her belief that “anybody can do anything”…especially if it’s Mary’s idea.
What you have to love about Mary is that she takes on Betty, and Betty’s two kids, at the beginning of The Depression, when she is already supporting three other siblings and her mother. Throughout the book, Mary’s charm and energy keeps both herself and Betty employed, in addition to Mary’s friends and eventually, their two sisters too. All of this, and all Betty was expected, when she told her family that she wasn’t happy, was a little sympathy.
Because they are all together, The Depression doesn’t seem so bad; in fact, quite often it seems fun. Now, having said that, on the one hand you can see, even from 90 years away, that the family was upper middle class at the beginning of the book and far from the worst off people through most of the story. But also it’s true that the fear was real. My dad grew up during The Depression, and my mom was born in ’36, and I know those years left an imprint on the rest of their lives, either though I don’t think either one of them actually went hungry, and they always had somewhere decent to live. And I remember my mom’s saying that her older sister said it wasn’t so bad because everyone was in the same boat…in fact, it would have been embarrassing to have more.
Which is kind of how things are right now, during the Covid shutdowns: some of us are more scared than others, but at least we’re all in it together.
Here’s what MacDonald says, in a rare serious moment: When you share your money, your clothes and you food with a mother, a brother and three sisters, your portion may be meagre, but by the same token when you share unhappiness, loneliness and anxiety about the future with a mother, a brother and three sisters, there isn’t much left for you (35).
Note: the book is written in British for some reason.
Other Books by Betty MacDonald
The Egg and I
It took me a little doing to figure out how these books go together because they are written with an emphasis on themes and settings rather than chronology. Which is fine in memoir…but it still takes a little sorting for my limited mind.
The events in The Egg and I happened first, but the book about them were written about fifteen years later, after the events in all three of the first three books had occurred.
The Egg and I is about MacDonald’s adventures while starting a farm with her first husband.
Some of the attitudes that MacDonald expressed about both the Native populations and the White locals have been criticized…I guess the best that can say is that MacDonald was equal opportunity?
After a hilarious chapter about MacDonald’s childhood with her older sister Mary, Anybody Can Do Anything begins with MacDonald’s leaving her first husband and moving back in with her natal family…right as The Great Depression begins and also after the death of her father. At the beginning of Anybody Can Do Anything, Mary is supporting her mother and three younger siblings, something a lot of grown men couldn’t do during The Depression (and remember there were a lot fewer jobs available to women at that time, ESPECIALLY during The Depression, and what was available usually paid little).
When Betty moved back home, naturally she needed to find work too since she was bringing two more dependents of her own.
The children’s father seems to have been completely out of the picture.
The Plague and I
The Plague and I was published just two years after The Egg and I, with the first Mrs. Piggle Wiggle coming in between; however, the events in the book took place in 1937-1938, which is “en media res”* written about in Anybody Can Do Anything, which occurred roughly from 1931 to the early 40’s.
*The term “en media res” isn’t usually used this way…normally, you use it to describe a story that begins “in the middle of the action” (which is what this term means). Bear in mind we are discussing a woman who has her most enduring character (Mrs. Piggle Wiggle) living in a house that is literally upside down and leave it at that. I’m sure you will agree that my (mis)use of this term is appropriate in this case.
Onions in the Stew
In 1942, MacDonald moved to Vashon Island (Washington State) with her daughters and her second husband, which she draws on for Onions in the Stew. Note that she actually wrote all four books, and the Mrs. Piggle Wiggles, three of which had been published by this time, while living on Vashon Island.
For some reason, two of Betty MacDonald’s books are freely available at Project Gutenberg Canada. The copyright must not have been renewed there.
All four of MacDonald’s adult books seem fairly readily available in public libraries in the U.S., and the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books definitely are.
Onions in the Stew at Project Gutenberg Canada
The Egg and I at Project Gutenberg Canada
If you want to know still more about Betty MacDonald, or would like a (slightly) more objective point of view…and I say slightly, because MacDonald’s biographer, Paula Becker, also seems to be a big fan, read Looking for Betty MacDonald. I have an excerpt for you below.
Excerpt Looking for Betty MacDonald from Humanities Washington
You Tell Us
Have you read any of MacDonald’s books? What do you think?
What are your favorite laugh-out-loud books?