Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I by Paula Becker.
University of Washington Press. Published: September, 2016. 304 pages. ISBN: 978-0295999364
You may know Betty MacDonald from her best-selling book The Egg and I (or the movie of the same name). It was her recollection of life on a chicken ranch in Chimicum on the Olympic Peninsula. Written with MacDonald’s biting wit and rich character development, The Egg and I had readers laughing and buying books in post-World War II America. MacDonald’s enormous publishing success and its cinematic adaptions led to three more MacDonald books for adults and a series of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books that are still popular with children sixty years later.
With curiosity and affection, biographer Paula Becker explored the life of Betty MacDonald in Looking for Betty MacDonald, the new book from University of Washington Press. It’s a personal look at an author Becker first discovered as a child through Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle. Years later she found herself living in Seattle where she discovered one of MacDonald’s former houses. She began a quest for the woman behind all the written levity.
While Betty MacDonald’s writing provoked a generation of laughs, her life was often a struggle. After her father died young, MacDonald was raised by her mother in a boisterous home usually rich on social life but short on money. She survived a bad marriage to an alcoholic, divorced him in an era when divorce was not at all common, found work in Seattle, suffered from tuberculosis, and lived for a time in a Seattle hospital ward. She eventually remarried, relocated to a home on Vashon Island, raised a family, became a best-selling author, and arguably invented a new style of humor writing — one whose foundation of truth was stretched by exaggeration, spun by talented story-telling, and finished off with a fierce dose of wit.
The Egg and I was based on that rough experience living on the chicken ranch during her rocky first marriage. It was a painful chapter in her life, but she made it funny through frequent re-telling over the next decade. Becker described the transformation as serving two purposes: entertaining MacDonald’s friends and family and reclaiming those chicken ranch years on her terms.
The book was an immediate national success. Hollywood adapted the book as a movie starring Claudette Colbert and Fred McMurray. Fan mail arrived. So did money. There was enough money to make her family comfortable and her husband lost his job, but it would prove to be a diminishing revenue source. Managing money, it seemed, never came easy to people surrounding Betty MacDonald. Her humor-writing supported her family but it was always work.
More struggles came as the paychecks slowed. Her former Chimicum neighbors (upon whom the characters in her book were based) filed a lawsuit. Despite MacDonald’s giving vague locations, fictionalizing some of the scenes, and changing names to Ma and Pa Kettle (among others), the personalities and episodes rendered in the book were such that locals claimed to know who she had written about and at whose expense she was getting laughs … and money. The lawsuit and money troubles might have worn her down, but she refused to be a “saddo.” She was resilient. One friend described her as a “room of fireworks” you couldn’t ignore.
Becker narrated MacDonald’s life well. She clearly admired her subject but gave the craft of history an honest voice. She deftly navigated the lawsuit episode, giving both plaintiff and defendant their say. And though Betty MacDonald left behind four autobiographical books, Becker did not simply arrange or paraphrase them. I was surprised how little she quoted them, in fact. She instead made good use of her own historical footwork and research into the papers MacDonald and her family left behind.
Don’t skip the prologue or epilogue. A fine biography of a unique woman might be tucked in between but Becker used these fore and aft pages to get personal with her subject. She explained what motivated her to find the papers and all the houses (in five states) relating to MacDonald. Becker visited one such house minutes before it was demolished.
Shelf Appeal: Egg and I and Mrs. Piggle Wiggle fans will likely enjoy the backstory to those gems. There should be an additional audience for Paula Becker’s biography among those who have never even read a word of Betty MacDonald’s books. It’s enjoyable simply learning about this creative and outspoken woman.
Re-publication: Coinciding with the publication of Paula Becker’s Looking for Betty MacDonald, the University of Washington Press simultaneously re-published three of MacDonald’s other books. Like The Egg and I (about her time on the Chimicum chicken ranch), MacDonald wrote these books to examine various parts of her life: The Plague and I about her time recovering from tuberculosis in a Seattle hospital; Anybody Can Do Anything encompassing Depression Era Seattle and paying tribute to her sister Mary; and Onions in the Stew about life on Vashon Island. The latter was my favorite.
Jailhouse Stories from Early Pacific County by Sydney Stevens.
Arcadia History Press. Published: June, 2016. 160 pages. ISBN: 978-1467135290
Pacific County’s jail was no Alcatraz. Its solitary jail cell sometimes went a year between residents. And yet this book was remarkably satisfying. It showed the bad side of the good old days. Sydney Stevens was given access to a jailhouse book that recorded inmates in the coastal county from 1886 to 1919. The era was not overly dramatic nor was the region a hotbed of criminal activity, but speculation and stories of people caught doing bad things seem appropriate to a remote area in post-pioneering times.
There is little detail in the official records beyond the names and dates of incarcerations but Stevens manages to insert plenty of related history between the lines from newspaper clippings or old-timer reminiscences. In many cases inmates were briefly held in the jail then vanished from the historic record altogether. In others, the criminal or the court case lingered in community memories much longer than their sentenced time.
One crime involved the disappearance of a husband and wife. The murderers planted clues in an attempt to fool authorities that the unlucky couple had gone out on the bay and drowned after their boat capsized. The bodies were found buried on their own land, one in a pig pen. The murder of Oscar Bloom by Lum You led to a hanging in 1902, despite several months in which You was given ample opportunity to walk out of his intentionally unlocked jail cell and flee the county. He ran away during one opportunity but turned himself in, one version of the story goes, so he wouldn’t cause his jailers any trouble.
The county during this period was traversed by men from other states and countries looking for work in lumber camps or fishing boats. They gambled, tussled, and drank. The reasons for incarcerations varied. In addition to the murders, many of the men were locked up for assault, drunkenness, forgery, or theft. Women, too, spent time in the “jailplace,” often for vagrancy or lewdness — both euphemisms for prostitution — but also for assault and being “incorrigible.” Of the 590 inmates in the Pacific County jailbook, only about three dozen were women. Men and women, especially in the later years covered within this book, transferred to other institutions built to handle greater transgressions in Walla Walla or Steilacoom.
As the book’s tales of crime and punishment advanced, we got a glimpse of the changing economic and political face of the county. Included among the stories was the infamous 1893 raid in which men from South Bend paddled across the bay to Oysterville and forcibly confiscated the county records, thus taking the government itself after Oysterville lost the election for county seat.
Shelf Appeal: Readers interested in short stories of early law and order will enjoy this book. Fans of local history on Washington’s southwest coast will as well. It was a curious pleasure to read.
Dave Grohl: Times Like His by Martin James.
Music Press, imprint of John Blake Publishing. Published: April, 2016. 352 pages. ISBN: 9781784187552
Although Dave Grohl was born in Ohio, earned his early musical reputation in the Washington, DC music scene, and now lives in California, we’re including this enjoyable biography in WA-Books because Grohl’s career truly took off in Olympia and Seattle.
Martin James, a British music historian and journalist, relates the story of the Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters frontman using his own musical commentary and quotations from more than one hundred published sources. James follows the so-called hardest working musician in the business from one band to the next, and from one recording session to the next. Along the way we learn how he kept busy while Kurt Cobain’s various issues disrupted Nirvana tours and how Grohl overcame the perception that he was “just a drummer.” Almost every song in the Grohl discography gets at least a mention. Most songs get critical appraisals that identify which part of the music or instrumentation sets it apart or how it furthers the themes of their albums. The result is a thorough look at the creative, working life of a man willing to jam with any other musician in his orbit. Although there is periodic mention of Grohl’s personal life, the focus of the book is clearly music, songwriting, the dynamics of being in a band, and the professional art of recording. James clearly knows music.
Shelf Appeal: Fans of Nirvana, Foo Fighters, and Dave Grohl will enjoy the background stories and musical detail.
Other recent and upcoming book titles:
Once and Future River: Reclaiming the Duwamish by Tom Reese.
University of Washington Press (Ruth E. Kirk Books). Published: May, 2016. 183 pages. ISBN: 9780295996653
Kalama by C. Louise Thomas.
Arcadia Publishing. Images of Modern America. Published: April, 2016. 128 pages; 221 images. ISBN: 9781467116237
Skiing and Sleeping on the Summits: Cascade Volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest by Jon Kedrowski.
Mountaineers Books. Published: March, 2016. ISBN: 9781937052355
100 Things to Do in Seattle Before You Die by Athima Chansanchai.
Reedy Press. Published: January, 2015. 160 pages. ISBN: 978-1935806912
The Landscape Architecture of Richard Haag: From Modern Space to Urban Ecological Design by Thaisa Way.
University of Washington Press. Published: January, 2015. 241 pages. ISBN: 9780295994482
Native Trees of Western Washington: A Photographic Guide by Kevin W. Zobrist.
Washington State University Press. Published: December, 2014. 141 pages. ISBN: 9780874223248
Leo Adams: Art, Home by Shelia Farr, Linda Tesner; Photographs by Michael Burns, Rob Prout
Marquand Books. Published: September, 2013. 160 pages. ISBN: 978-0988227552
Wild Roads Washington: 80 Scenic Drives to Camping, Hiking Trails, and Adventures by Seabury Blair Jr.
Sasquatch Books. Published: June, 2012. 272 pages. ISBN: 978-1570618154
Edward Lange: An Early Artist of Olympia and Washington State by Drew W. Crooks.
Tenalquot Press. Published: 2012. 186 pages.