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Monday, May 21, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Books

'The Egg and Us': Betty MacDonald revival celebrates gritty writer who personifies NW

Seattle Times book critic

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If she had been a New Yorker, her reputation would be as secure as Dorothy Parker's.

So said two friends of mine - both of them writers, both native Seattleites - about Betty MacDonald, over dinner a few weeks ago. They have a point.

The wry and edgy wit of MacDonald's first book, "The Egg and I," feels remarkably fresh more than half a century after first publication. Her three subsequent books for adults are just as antic and seductive. And her books for youngsters, especially the "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" series, have been a staple of children's literature for decades.

Even when MacDonald is addressing gloomy subject matter (serious illness, being broke and jobless), the zest and punch of her writing makes you feel like celebrating - which is what the library on Vashon Island, where MacDonald lived in the 1940s and '50s, plans to do Saturday (see accompanying story for details on their Betty MacDonald Day).

Three of MacDonald's long-out-of-print memoirs are available again: "The Plague and I," about her yearlong stint in a Seattle tuberculosis sanatorium; "Anybody Can Do Anything," about pounding the pavement, looking for work in Depression-era Seattle; and "Onions in the Stew," about happier but still chaotic times on Vashon. All are available for $15.95 from A Common Reader (www.commonreader.com; 1-800-832-7323). And all should appeal to anyone interested in the social history of Seattle in the 1930s and 1940s. Indeed, it remains something of a mystery how they ever fell so far off the local literary radar.

"The Egg and I," as wonderful as it is, may be partly to blame for the neglect. The book's fish-out-of-water tale, about 18-year-old newlywed city gal Betty trying to be a chicken farmer on the Olympic Peninsula in the 1920s, enjoyed huge popularity when it came out in 1945, and was made into a film with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray. It also spawned, for better or worse, a series of Ma and Pa Kettle movies which had little to do with the book.

Along with the movies came the lawsuits. In 1951, 10 plaintiffs, identifying themselves as the basis for the book's vividly vulgar Kettle characters, accused MacDonald, her publishers and the Bon Marché (which carried the book) of libel. The trial shed light on MacDonald's working methods, making it clear that all names had been changed (except for the MacDonalds') and that considerable poetic license had been used in the name of comic hyperbole.

MacDonald's daughter Joan Keil, in a 1998 interview, adds that the Kettles and other figures in the book were "composite characters" inspired by the locals but drawn with a free hand. In the end, the libel charges didn't stick.

All the legal and Hollywood hoopla surrounding "The Egg and I" may have overshadowed MacDonald's other memoirs. But the picture of her achievement is painfully incomplete without them.

"Anybody Can Do Anything"(1950) picks up in the Depression where "The Egg and I" leaves off. MacDonald, on the run from a broken marriage back to her family in Seattle, turns to her mother, Sydney Bard, for help in caring for her two young daughters and to her sister, Mary Bard, for help in finding a job and a social life.

While MacDonald's idea of an ideal job is "a combination janitress, slow typist and file clerk," Mary, a take-charge type of unbelievable tenacity, has grander notions. She sends her sister off on jobs that rarely last more than a week or two, but that take her all over town - from Pike Place Market to the "flophouse district"(Pioneer Square) to an only slightly less seedy neighborhood around the downtown Public Library distinguished by its "cheap rooming houses that advertised Palm Reading, Mystic Seances and Steam Baths."

MacDonald brings a winning, screwball tone to her recollections, but she also has a keen eye for the telltale signs of pinched circumstance affecting so many people.

"The Plague and I" (1948), with its sanatorium setting, portrays a fascinating cross-section of a slightly better-off Seattle population circa 1938. MacDonald's companions include a man-crazy movie usherette who balks at following the hospital rules; a displaced Southern belle who delights in her own ailments; a "charming colored girl" whose children get hospitalized along with her because her mother works and her husband, a porter, is out of town so much; and a deceptively soft-spoken young Japanese woman whose wit is as acerbic as MacDonald's.

The rest cure at "the Pines" (i.e., Firland Sanatorium, now the campus of CRISTA Ministries) comes with a stringent set of rules regarding self-control: "Patients must not read. Patients must not write. Patients must not talk. Patients must not laugh. Patients must not sing. Patients must lie still." The reason: the only way to keep infection from spreading throughout the body was to exercise as little as possible.

Despite its jokey title, "The Plague and I" is powerful stuff, especially when addressing the psychological effects of long-term illness.

MacDonald did recover, happily, and remarried in 1942. The housing shortage was acute, and "Onions in the Stew" (1955) provides glimpses of wartime Seattle as MacDonald and her husband go house-hunting. Having no luck, they turned to Vashon Island, where they found a log cabin near the ferry landing. A constant stream of visitors; a gallery of oddball island types; the challenge of raising two adolescent daughters - they all make for lively reading.

There's plenty here to prompt keen regret that MacDonald died so young, at 49, of cancer in 1958.

"There are all kinds of guests," she writes, in an aside on her busy life as writer, mother and hostess. "Fun, no-fun, hard, bores, nasty, crazy, alcoholic, religious-fanatic, old pals who have gotten fat and dull, old pals who have gotten rich and dull, old pals who haven't succeeded and are on the defensive." That clear-eyed melancholy can be found alongside ready wisecracks in all her books.

The question remains: Why did the books fall into obscurity? One answer may be that MacDonald was a city kid. Seattle, even at this late date, hates to think of itself as a city. If a book doesn't have Douglas firs, leaping salmon and outdoor exertions in it, it can't be a genuine local product. MacDonald cheekily refutes this.

There's a second, more dispiriting possible reason for the books' neglect, and it has to do with race. A number of readers have trouble handling MacDonald's take on "drunken Indians." And that house hunt in 1942 includes a moment when the MacDonalds, a little too unreflectingly, accept the offer of an apartment from a "very charming Japanese professor" who is headed to an internment camp.

Context is everything, however, and "The Plague and I" gives the truest measure of where MacDonald stands on the issue of race. At the sanatorium, she confronts some of her fellow patients for using racial slurs, and her close friendship with the young Japanese patient whose sense of humor is so akin to her own is one of the most affecting elements of the book.

As for MacDonald's jabs elsewhere at rowdy Indian beach barbecues or the feeble efforts of her Japanese housecleaner, it may help to note that she subjected her Seattle office mates and her Vashon neighbors' cooking abilities to just as lively a skewering

Certainly the picture she paints of the region can't have been quite what people expected in the 1940s and 1950s. For that very reason, it was MacDonald's sister Mary who urged her to write a book about the Northwest: "Most people in the United States either think we're frozen over all the time like the Antarctic or that we're still wearing buckskin and fighting Indians. Now personally I think it's about time somebody out here wrote the truth."

MacDonald, on a number of levels, both conscious and unconscious, wrote a truth worth preserving and cherishing.

Michael Upchurch can be reached at 206-464-8793 or at mupchurch@seattletimes.com.

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