The Egg and I

Simcha Fisher back in May posted an article on LOL Books and mentioned this book.

The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald.  One of my favorite memoirs.  A lovestruck newlywed follows her husband to the largely unspoiled wilderness of Washington State, where they carve out a homestead and raise chickens, with backbreaking labor from dawn till dusk and beyond.  You end up wanting to clobber her husband, but the story is completely engrossing.  I guess I have a soft spot for someone who spends so much time just complaining about things — but oh man, what great stories, what crazy characters.  (NB:  She portrays native Americans in a way that many readers today will not be able to tolerate.)

As I kid I fondly remember the movies based on this book and especially the characters of Ma and Pa Kettle. I hadn’t realized it was a semi-biographical story. This is often a very funny book as the author talks about her life growing up moving from city to city. At 20 she gets married to an older man who later decides to give up his current career for the life of the chicken farmer. Now this is not quite the Green Acres scenario with the city born wife with new farmer husband and resulting hijinks. Though it has echoes of that with Bob her husband being a fairly capable man being able to pull off life as a chicken farmer. Betty MacDonald though sees herself as less than capable and often bumbling in her adaptation as a farmers wife. She puts all the difficulties rather strikingly and very humorously. I especially enjoyed her relating the tales of “Stove” and the subsequent battles with the old wood cooking stove. In the mix of this she is also able to nicely relate the scenery around her and it brought up my own memories of the time I lived in Washington State while in the Navy.

As in the movies the funniest characters are Ma and Pa Kettle, the next door neighbors as semi-hillbillies. Pa Kettle the lazy shift who is always trying to find somebody to do the work for him. As Simcha notes the portrayal of native Americans is quite stereotypical and off-putting. Though this was not the only aspect of the book I found off-putting. For me there was and underlying current of superiority as the author relates to the people around her. While Ma and Pa Kettle are rather sympathetic characters many people are simply “idiots” including her descriptions of her own relatives. This portrayal of the people around her took away some of my enjoyment of what was so often truly funny in the book. She came across to me as a bit of a jerk.

When I looked up her Wikipedia entry after reading the book I was not greatly surprised to find that she had divorced her husband the chicken farmer and remarried. Though the book being written in 1945 there was some effort to hide her divorce. In the movie version the husband is named Bob MacDonald even though MacDonald is the last name of the man she later married.

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