Betty MacDonald’s memoir “The Egg and I” has never gone out of print. It doesn’t fly off shelves the way it once did, but it’s sat continuously on bookstore shelves since it first hit them on Oct. 3, 1945, one month and one day after the Japanese surrender that ended World War II.
The strange — but amusing and endearing — story of a man, a woman, an egg farm in Chimacum on the Olympia peninsula, their neighbors and their struggle, fetched America’s post-war fancy. And despite some controversial descriptions of those neighbors (she changed their names for the book; they still sued) and some painfully out-of-date attitudes toward coastal Native Americans, it persists as one of the most popular and most resonant accounts of Pacific Northwest life.
MacDonald, born in either 1907 or 1908 (sources differ), had never published a book before. Less than one year after the appearance of “The Egg and I,” in September 1946, Washington state governor Monrad C. Wallgren, presented her with the book’s one-millionth copy, at a ceremony held in downtown Seattle’s Washington Athletic Club. She died of cancer 12 years later, in 1958.
“By about 2012,” relates Seattle historian and author Paula Becker, “I was noticing that public recognition of Betty and the huge role she played in telling the world about the Pacific Northwest was fading. I wanted to be part of making sure that didn't happen — that Betty and her books and her life were not forgotten.”
The result was Becker’s biography, “Looking For Betty MacDonald: The Egg, The Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I,” published by University of Washington Press.
The biography’s fanciful title refers in passing to some of MacDonald’s post-“Egg” works, including the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” children’s book series; and three more adult memoirs, now also back in print courtesy of the University of Washington.
“The Plague and I” covers her struggle in a tubercolosis ward. “Anybody Can Do Anything” found her back in Seattle — the egg farm and her first marriage behind her — riding out the Depression. By “Onions in the Stew” she’d married again and was trying life outside the big city again — this time on Vashon Island, where roads were few, mud and sand were plenty, and you were well-advised to wear boots to walk home, especially at high tide.
But the author spent long stretches in Seattle that helped define her. MacDonald, whose original name was Anne Elizabeth Campbell Bard, lived briefly in North Capitol Hill as a little girl, then in Laurelhurst. After her marriage broke up she lived with her mother and sisters and with her young daughters in a small house on 15th Avenue Northeast, Roosevelt district. When she and her second husband were newly married they lived briefly in a small apartment on the eastern edge of the University district, before moving to Vashon Island in 1942.
She grew up the second oldest of five children (a sixth died as a baby), and the Bards were smart, energetic, and dedicated, but also clannish, to the point where Becker provides a glossary of “Bardisms,” the lingo they spoke to one another. The Bards could be prickly and sometimes made enemies, but they always found strength in each other.
Asked about her biggest surprise upon researching MacDonald’s life and work, Becker remarked, “I was most surprised to discover the sad and deeply disturbing truth about Betty's first marriage, which she transforms into a rollickingly funny tale in “The Egg and I.” The sheer will Betty applied to surviving those experiences is laudable, and the fact that she turned those years into a story that resonated with millions of readers around the globe is nothing short of amazing.”
Asked for her favorite MacDonald memoir, though, Becker holds out for “Anybody Can Do Anything,” the Depression tale.
“For me, Betty's descriptions of 1930s Seattle are pure time travel,” Becker said. “Her places — Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, the Roosevelt and University districts — are still our places, but Betty's prose peels back the decades and lets us feel we are there by her side — on the streetcar, in the coffee shop, gathering downed logs in Ravenna Park to heat the family's home when they couldn't afford to pay the electric bill.”
Essentially, Becker sums up, Betty MacDonald's work stands out from the work of first-person humorists who followed her by virtue of both its seeming-effortlessness, its longevity, and its personal, intimate tone.
Betty's are books that readers return to again and again,” the biographer finishes, “reading a chapter at the end of a hard day at work or passing a volume on to a daughter, son, grandson — her readers felt they knew her, and treasured that connection. She was also the first writer describing the Pacific Northwest whose books became known worldwide.”