|Cover illustration by Peter Probyn.|
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