Looking for Betty MacDonald
This is a loving and thorough biography that gives insight and context into the writer behind Ma and Pa Kettle, the country bumpkins in nine movies made in the 40s and 50s. There’s much more to Betty than those characters. Becker narrates the audiobook herself.
I came across The Plague and I in Grandma Kunze’s book closet when I was 9 or 10. No book jacket, no way to know what it was about, but the title was intriguing. Grandma Kunze – actually my dad’s second wife’s first husband’s mother – didn’t tell me anything about it either, but she said she thought I’d like it and I should take it home for keeps and read it. I still have it, and I read it probably four or five times in the next few years. It sounds dreadful: a memoir of the time the author spent at a tuberculosis sanitarium in the 1930s, when treatment was mainly lying down in a cold bed and not talking. But it’s actually darkly funny and peopled with all kinds of wonderful characters. I’d already read some of the Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle stories, which are written for kids, but didn’t figure out till much later that it was the same Betty MacDonald who wrote both. Years later, I read her first book, The Egg and I, which was on the NYT best seller list for years in the 1940s.
Becker’s biography is fascinating. For someone like me, who already knows the bits of Betty’s life she showed in her memoirs, the biography fills out the details. Like – why would a girl from a sociable, intellectual, lively Seattle family tie herself to a grumpy older man on a chicken farm in the middle of nowhere? But even if you’ve never encountered Betty MacDonald before, the picture of life in the times she lived in, particularly for a successful female writer, is enlightening. For instance, in the 1950s her style was too bitter to be palatable; I was born in the 1950s and it’s always surprising to me to realize how that Puritanic and patriarchal father-knows-best tra-la-la decade differed from what came before. Writers like Jean Kerr, Peg Bracken, and Erma Bombeck followed in MacDonald’s footsteps, writing humorously about their lives, but seemed to fit the rosier outlook readers (or publishers, at any rate) were looking for in the 50s and 60s.
Becker started with research in publicly available sources, but she eventually got up the courage to contact Betty’s family, who had saved boxes full of letters and generously shared their own memories to help fill in the gaps.