It’s been 100 years since Betty MacDonald’s birth, 50 years since her death — and many are still enjoying her books, marveling at what she accomplished and wondering about her place in the literary world.
Her books have been translated into dozens of languages, and some of them — including “The Egg and I” — have never gone out of print. And yet no biography has been written about her, and her books — spirited memoirs about her sometimes difficult, oft-amusing life — are more popular in Europe than the United States, some say.
“She seems to be under-appreciated here,” said Charles Schlessiger, the literary agent who has represented her work for more than 40 years.
And yet many say MacDonald’s books are as relevant today as they were in the post-Depression years when they were published, and she continues to receive acclaim.
Her publisher, HarperCollins, is issuing a centennial edition of “The Egg and I” in June, according to Rob Crawford, an editor there. On the back of the book, he said, will be a testimonial from Michael Korda, author of the bestseller, “Ike.”
“Re-reading (‘The Egg and I’) now, I not only think it’s a wonderful work of real comic genius, but strangely touching as well,” Korda writes. “It remains what it always was — a wonderful, funny, warm, honest book and, to use a much over-used word, a classic.”
Schlessiger, who was employed by her family after she died and regrets that he never met her, is also awed by what he calls “the sheer power of her writing.”
“I think she’s a wonderful writer. Her books are literature. They’re American literature and as such they should be valued,” Schlessiger said from his home in Manhattan. “Maybe because they’re light, people think they’re not important. … But there’s a tough quality there. It’s a real resilient voice.”
MacDonald, who was born in Boulder, Colo., and went to school in Seattle, wrote all of her books from a cabin-like home perched above the Sound on Vashon.
Her years on Vashon were relatively few: She moved here in 1942, after marrying her second husband, Donald C. MacDonald, and stayed until 1956, when — flush with money from the remarkable success of “The Egg and I” — they moved to a ranch in Carmel, Calif. A year later, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer. She died on Feb. 7, 1958, in a Seattle hospital, one month shy of her 50th birthday.
Yet her time on the Island was long enough for her to become woven into the fabric of Vashon’s history and lore, and the Island has adopted her as one of its own.
Her two daughters, Joan and Anne, went to school here, graduating from Vashon High School. Her home, made of dark-stained planks of wood sealed with cement, still stands, just beneath the farm she purchased when the royalty checks from “The Egg and I” started rolling in. One of her most popular books, “Onions in the Stew,” was written about her hard-scrabble days on Vashon, when she’d rise at 5 to climb the long, steep, rutted trail from her house — part of which is now the Bunker Trail — to catch the ferry.
And perhaps most important, MacDonald drew to Vashon other members of her family as well as dear friends, creating a kind of MacDonald clan that still lives on today. Old-timers can point to the roads her brother, Cleve Bard, built and to the house near Lisabeula where her sister, Mary Bard Jensen, lived.
Darsie Beck, an Islander and Betty MacDonald’s nephew, spent untold days at the MacDonalds’ beach house, after his family moved to Vashon and his mother, Betty’s sister Allison, began working off-Island. Betty and her two daughters took care of Beck while his mother worked, and he recalls countless adventures on the beach, parties at the MacDonalds’ house and a kitchen that was always the hub of activity.
The observation of the 100th anniversary of her birth has served to remind him of what he called an adventurous and creative childhood and the place Betty MacDonald holds in his life.
“I was writing about this just the other day — the attributes of my youth that gave me direction … even when I didn’t know I had it,” said Beck, who is an artist, writer and landscape designer. “Our time together when I was with Betty and her daughters Anne and Joan was very creative. Art was just part of the entertainment; it’s what we did without television.
“How lucky can a person be not only to be around those kinds of people,” he added, “but to be in an environment like that.”
Only a year ago, Betty MacDonald’s granddaughter, Heidi Richards, moved to Vashon — a place she visited often as a child. She says she’s glad she’s returned in time for her centennial anniversary, as it’s given her another opportunity to consider her grandmother’s indomitable spirit and joie de vivre and the message of resiliency, hope and determination woven through her books.
“You can take a situation that could be depressing and horrible and turn it around and laugh at it and move on. That’s what Betty did, and that was the power of her books,” Richards said.
MacDonald’s first book, “The Egg and I,” was written almost on a lark, after her sister, Mary Jensen convinced her that publishers would be dying to know about what she called “the last frontier in the United States.”
Banged out on a typewriter with children underfoot, the book — an account of her rather dismal life with a husband she later divorced eking out a living on a chicken farm — was serialized in the Atlantic magazine before being released in 1945. No one in MacDonald’s family expected it to garner much attention.
In fact, it sold a million copies in less than a year. Two years later, it was made into a movie. And Betty MacDonald, almost overnight, became a celebrity.
From there, she went on to write “The Plague and I,” about her year in a sanitarium battling tuberculosis, “Anybody Can Do Anything,” about her quest to find work during the Depression, and — Vashon’s favorite — “Onions in the Stew.” Her popular children’s books, the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle series, followed.
It was a prodigious output in her 12 years as a writer, a body of work that won her a place in the hearts of many as one of America’s leading writers at the time. Her writing was warm, funny, self-deprecating and fresh, observers at the time said. What’s more, her memoirs had a tough-as-nails, laugh-at-adversity voice that resonated in those post-Depression, post-World War II days of American life.
In “Anybody Can Do Anything,” for instance, she describes her search for a job this way: “Every day found a little better class of people selling apples on street corners and even tips about jobs from friends were embarrassingly unreliable, I learned when I applied for a supposedly excellent secretarial job and was coldly informed, to my horror, that they weren’t quite ready to interview new applicants as the former secretary had only just jumped out the window.”
MacDonald’s fame, however, has dimmed in the United States, with fewer and fewer young people reading her work. Some suggest it’s because she wrote in a remote corner of the country, far from the center of literary power.
“If she had been a New Yorker, her reputation would be as secure as Dorothy Parker’s,” critic and novelist Michael Upchurch once observed.
In Europe, it’s a different story.
On March 26, the anniversary of her birth, the BBC will air a 15-minute documentary on MacDonald, a production that brought a team to Vashon to interview her relatives, friends and followers. She has at least one fan club in Europe, as well as a remarkable following in places like the Czech Republic and the former East Germany.
And at the Betty MacDonald Farm, which Judith Lawrence now runs as a charming, off-the-beaten path accommodation, countless guests arrive from far-flung corners on a kind of personal quest to embrace an author they adore, Lawrence said. She also gets many letters, one of which was addressed simply, “To Betty MacDonald, Vashon Island, Off the Coast of Seattle.”
Rayna Holtz, a reference librarian at the Vashon Library, said she thinks her stories — her joyful if also sardonic look at life’s daily struggles — may have greater resonance in Eastern Europe, where life for some is still quite hard.
“There’s something about her style of taking difficulties and misfortune and bad luck and other things that try the human soul and turning them into something laughable. And maybe for people in Europe, that’s closer than for people here,” Holtz said.
Holtz has been studying MacDonald for 20 years, ever since she started working at the library and had to field questions from far-flung fans who would come to Vashon each summer to learn more about their beloved author. In 2001, she began researching her more assiduously, in advance of a “Betty MacDonald Day” the library decided to put on at the behest of a fan club that was visiting the Island. “They begged us to bring out an exhibit and put on an event,” Holtz recalled.
Now, with the help of Laurie Tucker from the Vashon-Maury Island Heritage Association, Holtz again has immersed herself in MacDonald’s history and her books. And she’s again struck by her strength as a writer, a mother and an Islander.
“I’m just amazed by who she was,” Holtz said. “She really was productive in the midst of this very huge, clamorous, creative, tumultuous family. … She had a three-ring circus going on, and still managed to write these wonderful books.”
Vashon’s Friends of the Library and the historical association have decided to begin raising funds for a Betty MacDonald memorial on the Island — selling a film that’s still in the works that includes clips of people reminiscing about MacDonald and her life. The group doesn’t know what shape the memorial will take, though the idea of an upside down house (a reference to her popular Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books) has come up often, Holtz said.
No memorial exists anywhere for MacDonald, she said, and she’s excited to undertake the project.
“It’s long overdue,” Holtz said.