Wednesday, August 05, 2009

July Reading: The Egg and I

Probably the author's best-known work, this comic memoir tells the story of Betty MacDonald's brief first marriage (1927-1931) and how she and her husband tried their hands at chicken farming in the Chimacum Valley in Washington state.

This way of life wasn't MacDonald's first choice for the ideal life and although she's extremely witty about her hardships, her tone gets a little acid at times. One can't really blame her; if what she says in The Egg and I is true, Bob slapped that wedding ring on her left hand one minute and was eagerly pouring chicken feed into it the next.

MacDonald also creates unforgettable comic sketches of her neighbors, particularly the Kettles. Ma and Pa Kettle and their brood of 15 children went on to achieve iconic status in a series of popular B movies and were the inspiration for The Beverly Hillbillies.

Readers are warned in the foreword, written by both of MacDonald's daughters, about her negative and disparaging attitude towards Native Americans, but I wasn't prepared for the humor to be utterly cast aside as MacDonald luxuriously unleashed a torrent of scathing commentary about them and what she perceived to be their squalid lifestyle. Much of this invective is concentrated in one chapter, but other mean-spirited asides are peppered throughout the book.

This negativity tainted what was otherwise an enjoyable reading experience. Because I really wanted to love this book, I tried hard to put myself into a "1945 reading audience" mode, but found it difficult to shake off my knowledge about how the United States treated the Native Americans and subsequent problems they have faced.

When MacDonald capped off her tirade by comparing the Native Americans she saw around her to Hiawatha (an actual historical figure, but highly romanticized as a "noble savage"), I had to face it that she was a product of the time (1908-1958) in which she lived. What really puzzles me though is that she had painstakingly and successfully established perfect comedic pitch in the previous chapters, then she undercut it with that abrupt and jarring transition. It didn't hurt the success of her book, obviously, but it seems like a strange authorial choice. I wonder if her editor commented on it.

I'm disappointed that I didn't love The Egg and I as much as I thought I would, but I still very much want to read Betty MacDonald's other humorous autobiographical tales The Plague and I, Anybody Can Do Anything and Onions In The Stew.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your comments on the book "The Egg and I." I've always loved the movie, starring (I believe) Claudette Colbert & Fred MacMurray. I never thought to read the book; now I want to! Thanks again.

Bybee said...

I saw the movie a long time ago and liked it. I'd love to see it again.

Carrie K said...

Hmm. I'd love to read the book (I saw the movie eons ago) but I wonder if her prejudice would undercut the book for me too? Probably. I do try to remember the "of their times" bit myself but it's hard to do (as you know.).

Jeane said...

I've got a copy of this book on my shelf- and never read it. I had an inkling what it was about, but didn't know of the anti-native-american attitude. I hope that content doesn't ruin the book for me; I still do want to read it!

Robin said...

I felt the same disappointment that you described. I wanted to love the book, but I just couldn't.