Sunday, 23 February 2014

Penguin no. 1160: The Egg and I
by Betty MacDonald

Cover illustration by Peter Probyn.
Even with the continual rain, July, August, September and even October were bad fire months in the mountains. If you were unfortunate enough to live on a ranch near the Kettles, any month was dangerous. It was said that the Kettles set the original peat fires in the valleys and that one summer, Paw, to save himself the effort of mowing the lawn, set fire to the grass and burned off the front porch. The Kettles burned brush any old time of year and if the brush fire got away from them and burned five or ten acres of someone's timber, that was too bad.

Ma and Pa Kettle (or Maw and Paw Kettle as they are called here) are characters I associate with my childhood, even if I can recall no personal enthusiasm for watching their films. I remember them, possibly unreliably, as being shown on Australian television every Saturday afternoon when I was young, and so I was interested in finding out how my recollection of their depiction compared with how they were originally described.  Given that they tended to feature in fish-out-of water tales, or at least that is how I remember them, I like the idea that they first featured in a book where someone was writing a fish-out-of-water tale of their own. In The Egg and I it is the Kettles who at least partially inform the standard against which Betty MacDonald judges herself.

Betty MacDonald was only 19 and living in Seattle when she married an insurance salesman named Bob Heskett. It was during their honeymoon that she first learnt of his ambition to own his own chicken ranch, and she unexpectedly found herself starting out upon married life on a forty acre property situated on the back roads of a small town on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State, and living someone else's dream of rural self-sufficiency in a run-down home lacking all basic amenities, including electricity and plumbed water. In some ways her tale is a celebration of the conventional suburban American life of the time, with all its labour-saving devices, because she sets out to describe what life is like without them.

She describes a life of drudgery; of workdays which typically began at four in the morning and which ended very late at night. Many of the hours in between were lost to the menial but necessary tasks of fetching water and maintaining the fire of a wood-burning stove which inadequately provided their only means of heating and cooking. She describes depressing weather, oppressive mountains, and the many risks associated with living in such a remote area, including a need to contend with drunken men with lecherous intentions, wild cats from the neighbouring forest, a deranged individual wandering about the farm, and a neighbour who threatened the entire valley by inadvertently setting fire to his barn.

And it seems that she also had to contend with a nagging sense of failure. Betty MacDonald devotes much of her story to a tongue-in-cheek outline of the inadequacy of her efforts in comparison with the successful labours of those around her. The way she tells it much was expected of her, and no one seems to have been willing to make any allowances for her very young age, her inexperience, or even, when relevant, of her heavily pregnant state. She implies that her husband regularly seems to have found her wanting, and that her fragile self esteem needed to also withstand neighbourly visits before breakfast telling her of all they had already managed to complete.  And yet to judge by what she describes, the Hesketts seem to have been very successful in their self-sufficiency efforts, and were perhaps victims of their own good fortune. Every agricultural success meant more work, as all that produce had to be bottled, cooked and stored.

Betty MacDonald's story is also a tale about being an outsider, and about trying to adhere to her own ways while living in a community which abided by a completely different set of standards; she judges her neighbours for not being like her, and they, in their turn, judge her. She was a book-reader in a community that equated such activity with indolence, and an enthusiast of sun-baths and fresh and varied food for babies whilst living amongst people who believed in keeping babies swaddled, irrespective of the heat, and feeding them on an unusually restricted diet of pork gravy, pickles and beer. But nothing really dents her sense of being the one who was in the right.

There is an undercurrent of desperation throughout this story. Betty MacDonald felt oppressed by the mountains from the day of her first visit, and she always felt isolated - by distance, by a lack of sympathetic company, by her own lack of skill, by a sense of herself as different from those around her, and it would seem, by a marriage which was slowly disintegrating. The book reads like a warning to anyone in suburbia who might be nurturing a dream of a simpler, self-sufficient life: such ambitions are probably naive and ill-informed.

But whatever were the difficulties of Betty MacDonald's life, at least she faced the isolation and the primitive living conditions with the assistance of a hard-working husband (or at least that is how she portrays him; the reality may have been different)*. My sympathies throughout were with poor Ma Kettle who comes across as a wonderfully generous and capable woman tied for life to a senseless, dishonest, feckless, lazy, cadging no-hoper, and yet making the best of it.

The most amusing and entertaining sections of this book are those which describe or involve Ma Kettle. She may have been a little crude, and her behaviour may have been shocking at times, but she seemed to me a delight, whereas Betty MacDonald could seem a little judgemental. It would have been nice to find that Ma Kettle derived some benefit from being the inspiration for a character which clearly delighted cinema-goers of the '40s, but it seems that she died in 1937, many years before her hopeless husband.

*This is how he is presented in The Egg and I, but perhaps this is a generous portrayal for Betty MacDonald's divorce application apparently alleges abuse and alcoholism (see here). Bob Heskett died in 1955 as the result of a fatal stab wound.

First published 1945. Published in Penguin Books 1956. This edition 1961; the other edition I own is from 1956, and differs only in that it features the words 'complete' and 'unabridged' which are missing from the one pictured, and is priced at 2/6).

By the same author:
Penguin no. 1394: The Plague and I


  1. Thanks for this. I've been intrigued by this book for several years, as the moment I put one on sale, it's snapped up.

  2. "a hard-working husband (or at least that is how she portrays him; the reality may have been different). ...Betty MacDonald's divorce application apparently alleges abuse and alcoholism"

    It may have been necessary to give specific and sometimes fictitious reasons for divorce rather than just saying the couple were incompatible. On the other hand, alcoholism and being hard-working at heavy agricultural labour can go together- the alcohol makes the work bearable, the work keeps the alcoholic comparatively healthy- until they suddenly become seriously ill.

  3. Very interested to read your review. I believe the book has a fairly classic status in the USA, partly because of the Kettles. When I went to live in the Seattle area I went to visit the area where she lived - nowadays it just isn't that remote. When she lived there, it took days for visitors or news to reach her, and she obviously found that incredibly difficult, but quite accessible now. I enjoyed the book, and still often think about her description of some unsuitable floor covering: words to the effect of 'white velvet on the floor would have been slightly more impractical, but only just.' Living in houses with white carpets and light wood floors and 2 children, that thought has often cheered me up.

  4. Hi Karen, I've just discovered your blog and love it. What a wonderful premise. Will go and explore now! SD.

  5. Betty MacDonald had a very difficult marriage. After reading some of Betty MacDonald's letters I know that she had a very hard time.
    Betty stayed on the chicken ranch for 4 long years but in 1931 she returned to Seatte to her family.

  6. I was appalled at her life in The Egg and I, so at the beginning of Anybody Can Do Anything when she gathered up the kids and left, I was cheering. I've read all four memoirs and know what you mean about judgmental, but I love her anyway.

  7. It is important to remember that the book is FICTION, and not an autobiography of a woman later known as Betty MacDonald. More than a decade after the events in The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald wrote a book that was somewhat similar to the life of Betty Heskett, but is was fiction. It is found in the Fiction section of libraries, and a libel trial in the 50's proved it was fiction. Very, very entertaining fiction!

  8. The fact v fiction issue surrounding Betty MacDonald is examined in detail in Anne Wellman's fascinating biography 'Betty: The Story of Betty MacDonald, Author of The Egg and I', which came out in early 2016.



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