The Egg and I, a fictionalised account of Betty MacDonald's years on a chicken farm, was a sensation on publication in the USA in 1945 and was adapted into a popular film, It made its author rich and famous.
‘A good laugh is to be welcomed always: never more so than at the present, when much gloom and ill-humour stalk abroad’, said the Illustrated London News.
The Egg and I has never been out of print in America, and the title and the names of two characters, Ma and Pa Kettle, have entered the language.
In the Reading Sheffield team, we like Egg but we prefer Betty MacDonald's second book, The Plague and I (1948). It doesn’t sound very promising: her year spent recovering from tuberculosis in a strict sanatorium, with few family visits allowed and the threat of death hanging over her. In fact, Plague is vintage Betty MacDonald, displaying her considerable gifts for observation and characterisation and her wonderfully sharp wit. Here is the Charge Nurse dealing with a rebellious new patient
She noticed a bare shoulder. Then turning back the covers, as though she were looking for maggots in a sack of flour, she revealed the rest of the bare and satin-clad Miss Kelly, Her nostrils swelled almost to bursting point. She said to Granite Eyes [another nurse], ‘Miss Murdock … get a pair of outing flannel pyjamas.’ She turned to Miss Kelly … ‘why have you come here wearing silk (she breathed out heavily as she said this loathsome word so that it came out ‘suh-hilk’) pyjamas and nail polish?’But (and this is important) Betty does not gloss over the treatments (or lack of them – streptomycin had not then been developed), the apparent harshness of the regime or the deaths of fellow patients.
Kate … explained that she had empyema, an infection of the pleural cavity, and added casually that she was dying.Betty’s short and sometimes difficult life does not immediately suggest much opportunity for humour (although she might have said she had it no worse than anyone else). She was born in 1907 and died of cancer at the early age of 50. Her father died when she was a child, and she and her siblings were brought up in Seattle by a loving but unconventional mother. When she was 20, she married an ex-marine, Bob Heskett, and they started a chicken farm in a remote and poor part of the country (hence The Egg and I). The work was physically exhausting and there was little intellectual stimulation. After a few years, the marriage failed and Betty returned, with two small daughters but no means of support, to her mother’s home. The family struggled financially in the Great Depression and Betty had various poorly-paid and unsatisfactory jobs. The late 1930s brought tuberculosis and the sanatorium. In 1942, she married her second husband, Donald MacDonald, and lived with him until her death.
Betty wrote all her books* during this second, happier marriage. The Egg and I appeared first in 1945 and sold a million copies in a year. The Hollywood film, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, was a hit in 1947, with the hillbilly characters, Ma and Pa Kettle, proving particularly popular. (The film led to Betty’s being sued for libel by former neighbours who claimed they had been ridiculed.) Egg was followed by: The Plague and I in 1948; Anybody Can Do Anything (1950) chronicling family life in the Depression; and Onions in the Stew (1955) about life with her second husband and family on Vashon Island.
Betty MacDonald is under-rated as humorists often are. She seems to have operated on the basis of writing about what she knew and remembering that everything is copy. Why is she a good writer? Without flinching, she grounds the humour she finds in unlikely or unpleasant situations in the reality of those situations. And her use of language is very precise, yet she pulls off the trick of sounding like someone chatting to you on the bus. Taken together, her books are a chronicle of her times, but also a re-imagining of those times, where the humour is used to deflect the pain and stress she knew.