Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Egg and I by Betty McDonald

Oh, this book.  I loved it so much.  When I checked it out of the library on the advice of my mother (who has excellent book taste, by the way) I was pretty sure I was going to love it.  After all, Betty McDonald wrote my all-time favorite children's books, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series.  But before she became a famous author, Betty grew up with an interesting and amusing family, then married a man who wanted to be a chicken farmer.  Following the advice of her mother, she let her husband, Bob, decide where they would live and what they would do.  They end up on a dilapidated, isolated chicken ranch in the northwest Pacific, surrounded by trees and a few neighbors, all of whom Betty looks down on.

I am so impressed by authors that can write about any situation and make it extremely funny.  It appears that Bob, whom she later divorced, was no picnic to live with.  There are stories of him flirting with a Native American women, making fun of Betty, and scolding Betty for not keeping the house perfect as well as helping him with all of the farm work.  Of course, the story is one-sided, but even so, to make that funny is no small feat.  Betty and her husband were without running water, electricity, and had a wood stove that barely functioned.  People cheerfully traipsed through her house and stayed for meals and lengthy visits.  The one part that bothered me was the frequent racism throughout the whole book.  There were many Native Americans living near the McDonalds and many of them appear to have been alcoholics.  She writes unkindly about a snowflake dance that some Native American children did in a school play, noting nastily, "They only thing snowflake-like about their appearance was the whites of their eyes."  Sheesh, Betty!  In the preface written by Betty's daughters, there is a vague excuse about Betty being very frightened by the Native Americans, and so writing in a "lighthearted" way about them.  They finish by saying, "We are sure that if Betty were alive today, she would address the plight of the American Indian in a much different manner."  Maybe.
The 1940s movie.  I am very tempted by this.
On the other hand, I'm worried that it's going to be nothing like the book...

After reading this book, I turned to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's Farm.  I was fascinated by the fathers in the book.  Every. Single. One of them was just like Betty's husband Bob.  I was amazed!  Was this really the 1950s norm, or was Betty just writing the man that she knew the best?  I was also amazed that, as a child, this went right over my head.  Reading The Egg and I put the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories in a whole new light.

However, despite the blatant racism and the fact that Betty's husband got on my nerves frequently, this unforgettable autobiography was good.  Many of the characters were funny, the plot speed was perfect, and I am sure that this story will stay in my memory for a long time.  I highly recommend this book to anybody that has or has not read anything by Betty McDonald.  You will love it.

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