I put up my Christmas tree during the last week of November, just to get the feel and smell of November out of the house. Bob warned me that it would dry out and the needles would fall off before Christmas but I laughed. Not only did I think the drying out improbable but it seemed more likely that it would flourish and give birth to little Christmas trees in the moist atmosphere of the house.
I never tired of admiring and loving our little Christmas trees. When we cleared the back fields, Bob let me keep about ten of the prettiest trees for future Christmas trees. The loveliest of all we sent home to the family but the one I chose for our first Christmas was a dear, fat little lady with her full green skirts hiding her feet and all of her branches tipped with cones.
The Egg and I by Betty Macdonald is a memoir of the years in the late 1920’s that Ms. Macdonald and her first husband, Bob Heskett, spent running a small chicken farm near Chimacum, Washington. The Egg and I was Macdonald’s first book, published in 1945, and she went on to write several more volumes of memoir and the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books for children.
I can see from the book why the divorce ensued. Ms. Macdonald begins her story with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew: “Such duty as the subject owes the prince, even such a woman oweth to her husband.” Macdonald says she went into marriage with this sort of dutiful attitude, along with adherence to her mother’s advice “that it is a wife’s bounden duty to see that her husband is happy in his work.”
“Too many potentially great men are eating their hearts out in dull jobs because of selfish wives,” quoth Mom, and Betty listened and found herself supporting Bob in his dream of owning a chicken farm. With no electricity. No indoor plumbing. No radio. No telephone. Bats hanging in the cellar and flying into the house. Dropping boards and chicken lice. Days that began at 4 AM and ended at midnight or thereafter. Homicidal chickens. Bears and cougars. Ma and Pa Kettle as neighbors. Babies with “fits”.
And Indians. Ms. Macdonald has been criticized for her attitude toward Native Americans in this book (and perhaps others/), and her blatant prejudice against her Indian neighbors is rather jarring and unpleasant. After describing a horrific Indian social event on the beach that she and her husband attended, a beach party that included domestic violence, drunkenness, child abuse and near-rape, Macdonald says simply, “I didn’t like Indians, and the more I saw of them the more I thought what an excellent thing it was to take that beautiful country away from them.” Had Macdonald been content to say that she didn’t like the Indians she met or that she was appalled by the events at the party, her attitude would have been more understandable. However, to indict an entire group of people for the actions of a few is, well it’s what we nowadays call racism.
Aside from this major flaw, The Egg and I is funny. And Betty Macdonald had a way with words. Some examples, chosen almost at random:
“Farmers’ wives who had the strength, endurance and energy of locomotives and the appetites of dinosaurs were, according to them, so delicate that if you accidentally brushed against them they would turn brown like gardenias.”
“The parlor was clean and neat. . . I was amazed considering the fifteen children and the appearance of the rest of the house. But when I watched Maw come out of the bathroom, firmly shut the door, go over and pull down the fringed shades clear to the bottom, test the bolt on the door that led to the front hallway and finally shut and lock the door after us as we went into the kitchen, I knew. The parlor was never used. It was the clean white handkerchief in the breastpocket of the house.”
“Not me!” I screamed as he told me to put the chokers on the fir trees and to shout directions for the pulling as he drove the team when we cleared out the orchard. “Yes, you! I’m sure you’re not competent but you’re the best help I can get at present,” and Bob laughed callously.
Bob’s attitude in that last quote from the book, repeated frequently throughout, is probably the reason that Betty left him in 1931 and returned to Seattle, civilization, and eventually a new husband, Mr. Macdonald, who presumably appreciated her desire to support him in his work and returned the favor.
Ma and Pa Kettle, a composite picture of Betty’s neighbors on the Olympic Pennisula, went on to fame in several movies and a TV series in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. One of those neighbors, the Bishop family, sued Betty Macdonald and her publisher for subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation as the prototypes for Maw and Paw in her book. The court decided in favor of Macdonald and publisher Lippincott, probably because the Bishops had been appearing on stage as “the Kettles” to profit from their new-found notoriety.