The Egg and I – Betty Macdonald

There are some authors, because of the influence of the online reading group I’m in, that I stockpile before I get around to reading them.  Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth von Arnim were among the number for years (and I love them now, of course) – on the other hand, so were Margaret Drabble and Iris Murdoch, and now I’ve tried them without success, I’m left with piles of their books to keep or give away…

Anyway, long-winded introduction to: Betty MacDonald.  I believe it was Barbara or Elaine who first mentioned Ms. MacDonald to me, and her books were definitely compared to E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady novels – which is, of course, a surefire way to get me to try them.  It’s taken me a few years, but I’ve finally read one – The Egg and I (1945), which I bought in Edinburgh in 2009.

You might be disappointed – but you’ll probably be relieved – to learn that no supernaturally large egg features in the novel, but it does feature farming. Indeed, that is what The Egg and I is about – an account of being a farmer’s wife in 1920s America. As with the Provincial Lady books, and my other favourites by Shirley Jackson, it’s memoir thrown to the wolves of exaggeration – or fiction tempered by reality, depending on which side you see it.

And it is very amusing.  MacDonald realises the comic potential in the astonishing workload of running a small holding with an ambitious husband, and there is plenty to delight the reader in accounts of a recalcitrant stove, suicidal chickens, and uncooperative bread.  My chief reaction was gratitude that the shifting class system in Britain meant that my father and I could go to university and pick our careers, and that I didn’t end up in the great tradition of Thomas farmers (which stretches back as far as anyone knows, I believe.)  Nothing wrong with being a farmer, of course, only I have always suspected that I would be totally hopeless at it – a suspicion confirmed by reading The Egg and I.  You have to assume that Betty MacDonald deeply loved her then-husband Bob, because nothing else could possibly persuade a sane woman to embark on this venture with him.  It is a mark of her exceptionally good nature that, even when she is being teasing about the chores Bob suggests, there appears to be no deep-seated malice (which would be entirely justifiable):

By the end of the summer the pullets were laying and Bob was culling the flocks.  With no encouragement from me, he decided that, as chicken prices were way down, I should can the culled hens.  It appeared to my warped mind that Bob went miles and miles out of his way to figure out things for me to put in jars; that he actively resented a single moment of my time which was not spent eye to pressure gauge, ear to steam cock; that he was for ever coming staggering into the kitchen under a bushel basket of something for me to can.  My first reaction was homicide, then suicide, and at last tearful resignation.
Did I mention that she has a baby in the middle of the four years spent on this farm?  Betty MacDonald basically IS superwoman – and with a sense of humour too.

Then there are her neighbours – on one side is a large, lazy couple with about a dozen children.  Mrs Kettle seems quite good-natured (if not wised-up to the etiquette of everyday living), but Mr Kettle and his progeny seem to have no object in life but getting other people to provide food and assistance – and they do charmingly awful things like burning down their barn and starting a forest fire.  On the other side is the direct opposite: a farm kept so spotless you could eat your food off the floor.  All these secondary characters seem like exaggerations, but that didn’t stop the Macdonalds’ old neighbours filing lawsuits, according to the Wikipedia page.

The Egg and I doesn’t have the same laugh-every-page that I found in the Provincial Lady books, has a slightly slow start, and the workload is exhausting even to read about, but I still loved reading it.  Anybody drawn to self-deprecating, cynically optimistic accounts of a person’s everyday life (albeit an everyday life few of us would recognise), then this is a great book.  As so often, reading about the author’s real life changes things a bit – she was divorced from Bob, and remarried to Donald MacDonald, by the time the book was published (one wonders quite what her current husband thought about her achieving fame writing so fondly about her ex-husband) – but it’s easier simply to let The Egg and I be the simplified, all-American tale it wants to be.  As I wrote before – it’s neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a delightful amalgam of the two.

41 thoughts on “The Egg and I – Betty Macdonald

  • June 2, 2013 at 11:06 pm
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    I'd heard so much about how funny this was before I read it that it couldn't live up to my expectations.

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  • June 3, 2013 at 2:07 am
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    I'd heard of this book – or maybe the film version – but I didn't know much about it when I came across an old copy at a bookstore. I was pretty much bowled over from the first page (I loved all the family history that maybe made up the slow start for you?), and I quickly found her other three. I'm glad you enjoyed this!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:13 am
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      Perfect! I've checked my shelves and see I have The Plague and I, and Everyone Can Do Everything.

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  • June 3, 2013 at 2:07 am
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    When my sister and I were children we always loved it when the film of this book came on. It was filmed in 1948 with Marjorie Main nominated for an Oscar as Betty. It was a hilarious movie and would be fun if you could find it somehow to watch. I have this book here as a Penguin. You can see the film details here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0039349/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:13 am
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      I did some research, and turns out Main was actually Ma Kettle – and went on to star in loads more films about Ma and Pa Kettle. I do love an unexpected spin-off!

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  • June 3, 2013 at 3:04 am
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    When I was little, I got to go spend a week with my grandparents every summer out in the country on their farm. They owned very few books, but this was one of the few they owned. I think I read it every year. I didn't, however, connect Betty MacDonald with the Miss Piggle-Wiggle books I got from my school library until I had my own kids. So glad you enjoyed it!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:14 am
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      I wonder how useful it would be as a guide to farming?!

      For some reason, I always got Betty MacDonald confused with Betty Miller and Betty Smith – mostly because I hadn't read anything by any of 'em.

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  • June 3, 2013 at 4:51 am
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    I have such fond memories of this book. I was probably eleven or twelve the first time I read it – still a few years away from making the acquaintance of the Provincial Lady – and I absolutely loved it.

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:15 am
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      You were advanced! I was still reading Sweet Valley High at that age…

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  • June 3, 2013 at 6:06 am
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    I only knew MacDonald as the author of the wonderful Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books.

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:15 am
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      Several people have mentioned them, but I have no idea what they are – perhaps because I only read Enid Blyton for years!

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  • June 3, 2013 at 6:54 am
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    Next you should try The Plague and I – a most touching, sad and yet also slightly funny (in that MacDonald style) account of her experience in a TB sanitorium.

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:15 am
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      And I own it! Lovely – it's down in Somerset, and I didn't bring it back with me, but I'll make sure to get to it soon.

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  • June 3, 2013 at 7:21 am
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    Like Claire, I must have been 11 or 12 when I first read this, and I can remember chortling over it, while my mother recounted tales of her childhood when her father kept goats,chickens, geese, ducks and rabbits, and left the rest of the family to care for them while he went out to work!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:16 am
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      My Dad has never really told me a huge number of stories about growing up on a farm, but maybe he'd enjoy reading this…

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  • June 3, 2013 at 10:56 am
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    Loved both this and The Plague and I. I liked the details about her family background and her mining engineer father, as my father was also a mining engineer. Haven't read it for ages

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:16 am
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      A nice coincidence! Can't be many mining engineers in novels. Whereas vicars turn up in quite a few!

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  • June 3, 2013 at 11:37 am
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    I have read and loved Shirley Jackson's humorous memoirs, but have never gotten around to The Egg and I. My kids also loved Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, though!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:17 am
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      I think Jackson's are better – certainly made me laugh more – but these are great for when Jackson's are exhausted.

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  • June 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm
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    You should alsdo try Onions in the Stew, about the second marriage and living on n island

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:17 am
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      I watched the trailer for the film after finishing the book – goodness it looks poor! Well, very hysterical… and not in a good way.

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  • June 5, 2013 at 6:07 pm
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    Certainly recommended by me, Simon … and others. But I've only read Onions in the Stew and, just checking my shelves, find I also have to look forward to – The Egg and I; The Plague and I and Anybody Can Do Anything. I think Onions was set on an island near Portland, Oregon and this superwoman juggled babies and work and a house and husband and a very milted ferry service from what I remember- and, presumably, also wrote the book!

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    • June 8, 2013 at 10:18 am
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      Either Lyn or you – a dove, certainly, it seems! I admire Betty very much for all she managed to do… although she doesn't seem to have done much writing on the farm, one can hardly blame her.

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  • June 8, 2013 at 1:17 am
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    Betty MacDonald is beloved all over the world.
    Betty MacDonald fan club has members in 40 countries.
    We published a Betty MacDonald biography and many interviews with family and friends. Her youngest sister Alison Bard Burnett is as witty as Betty and tells the most wonderful family stories.

    Best wishes,

    Linde Lund

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    • June 10, 2013 at 10:11 am
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      You mentioned Betty MacDonald wrote so fondly about her ex-husband. That's what my mother thought after reading The Egg and I. I had other feelings while reading the book. After reading Betty MacDonald's biography by Wolfgang Hampel I could see what happened.
      It was a very difficult marriage and Robert in reality was rather strange. Betty MacDonald wanted to write the true story but her publisher refused and Betty MacDonald described him as the most successful chicken farmer in the region. That had nothing to do with reality.

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    • August 15, 2014 at 7:36 am
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      My dad grew up on the Egg and I farm, after this book was published. His mother was related to (his aunt was the daughter in law to the people the characters were based upon) the spotless neighbors, and he was friends with the family the Kettles were based upon. I recently read this book for the first time after visiting the Egg and I farm to leave my dad's ashes along with his sister's and two of his brothers.

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  • June 9, 2013 at 10:04 am
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    The film of this is absolutely delightful – quite madcap, and gorgeously filmed. A classic bit of B&W beauty. I have not read the book, but certainly will look for it now.

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    • June 9, 2013 at 10:22 am
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      Really? The trailer made it look so histrionic… but I will definitely give it a go one day!

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  • June 10, 2013 at 9:26 pm
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    Simon, this is one of my favorite books. As a matter of fact, I have a copy in a stack on my bedside table. How envious I am of your lovely hardcover edition with that wonderful dust jacket. I only have a paperback copy although I am ever on the lookout for a hardcover one. And you found yours in Edinburgh! How delicious.

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  • June 12, 2013 at 1:08 am
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    One of my favorites, also. I might hesitate to recommend it to some American readers, as Betty's descriptions of Bob's Indian friends would be considered very non-PC, but there are certainly elements of truth in what stolen land and firewater did to the native peoples of this continent. As for Betty speaking fondly of Bob–surely no woman agrees with you! He goes off with his friends into the rainy wilderness, leaving Betty to cope with almost impossible conditions. And do a little research about the Olympic peninsula, where they lived; it's still pretty wild country (which is good, I'd say). What I love the most about her books is that wicked sense of humor, which seems quite unlike much American humor, and really more British. I'm 67, and I laugh when I think of the neighbor's mom jumping off the porch and saying, "Ain't I spry!" And the visitor who "helped" Betty make dresses for her infant daughter by plopping Anne on top of the fabric on the floor and cutting a rough outline around the baby? So, I'm glad you like her; she seems like an old friend to me. Kate in Portland (and the books are set near Seattle, to the north of here).

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  • June 24, 2013 at 12:30 am
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    Dear Simon,

    we got many mails from Betty MacDonald fans from all over the world who told us that they enjoy your blog 'Stuck in a Book' very much.
    Thank you so much for mentioning Betty MacDonald.
    We hope you'll enjoy Betty MacDonald's other books as much as The Egg and I. Don't miss them, please. They are really very well written.

    Best wishes and enjoy a very nice Summer,

    Linde Lund

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    • June 24, 2013 at 6:56 am
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      How lovely to hear, Linde, thank you! I certainly shan't miss out on Betty MacDonald's other books, although it might be a while til I get to them – they'll be there waiting for me!

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  • June 30, 2015 at 8:37 am
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    Betty MacDonald deserves to be better remembered! All of her memoirs are very funny! I hear that the University of Washington Press will be releasing a biography about Betty in the fall of 2016. In the meantime, Post Hypnotic Press Inc. is recording all of her memoirs. “The Egg and I” is available now, and “The Plague and I” will be out in July 2015. These are part of our informal “dream jobs” catagory – where we collaborate with narrators so they can record books dear to their hearts – books they always wanted to voice. As you can imagine, the results of these collaborations are FANTASTIC! Heather Henderson narrated the Betty MacDonald books, and her warn tone and facility with accents and character voices are the perfect compliment to Betty’s wit. You can listen to a sample and buy the book on our web site: http://www.posthypnoticpress.com/catalogue/biographies/egg-and-i/. It’s also available through audible and other distributors.

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  • November 1, 2016 at 7:35 pm
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    A biography of Betty came out some months before the University of Washington Press one, in fact – by Anne Wellman, it’s called ‘Betty: The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of The Egg and I’. It’s fascinating because it sets out to show to what extent the fiction mirrored the facts of Betty’s life, as you allude to in your article.

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    • November 1, 2016 at 7:47 pm
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      Actually, the biography just released by the University of Washington Press is by Paula Becker – “Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and Me.” I haven’t read the Wellman bio, but Paula Becker’s biography is the OFFICIAL bio. She has been researching Betty MacDonald for years and had access to material no one else has seen. Anne Wellman’s bio is self-published. I haven’t read it, so I can’t compare it to Becker’s biography. Paula Becker’s bio is also available in audio, for those who like audiobooks. :)

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      • November 2, 2016 at 2:11 am
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        Speaking generally, and not in reference to either of these two books, I would add that an official biography is not necessarily better than an ‘unofficial’ one, since the subject or their family inevitably influences how the biographer portrays them. And maybe I’m mis-reading you, but you seem to imply that self-published books are inherently not as good as traditionally published works, which I would also disagree with.

        Anyway, I found the Wellman bio to be pretty thoroughly researched and well written. I’m sure they’re both fine books!

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        • November 2, 2016 at 8:27 am
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          As far as I know, MacDonald’s family did not put any undo pressure on Becker to tell one kind of story or another. Becker is a historian living in Seattle and you can check out some of researched on History Link’s site – search for Betty MacDonald: http://historylink.org/Search

          I’ll have to read Wellman’s bio and compare it. I encourage you to read Paula Becker’s biography, too – and the articles on History Link. I’d love to hear what you think once you’ve read both.

          http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-295-99936-4

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