Paula Becker, Looking for Betty MacDonald (2016)
Shortly after I included Betty MacDonald in a post about funny female authors, this book landed in my mailbox. I was delighted to explore MacDonald’s life and work through Paula Becker’s thoughtful, painstakingly researched biography, and even more thrilled to see that University of Washington Press is going to be reprinting three hard-to-find later works by the bestselling author of The Egg and I: Anybody Can Do Anything, The Plague and I, and Onions in the Stew. I’m so excited to share them with you, and hope that if you’re not a MacDonald enthusiast, you will be soon.
But back to the matter at hand: if you’ve ever read one of MacDonald’s memoirs, or the classic children’s series Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, you may share historian Paula Becker’s curiosity about the woman behind the words. Where did the comedic craft she executed so brilliantly come from? What was the real life that gave rise to her autobiographical works? What was the effect on her of the smashing success of Egg, and how did her story continue past that point?
Becker explores all these questions, shedding light not only on MacDonald’s life but on early Pacific Northwest history, the vagaries of the publishing world, the media circus, the trials of being a woman author in postwar America, and more. Like many comic artists, MacDonald had a good measure of tragedy and suffering in her life, and it is fascinating to learn about what didn’t make it into the books. Money troubles were a constant theme, but she also went through spousal abuse, divorce, illness, lawsuits, and in the end died far too soon of cancer. But what comes through in the biography is a portrait of a brave, determined, not necessarily easy-to-live-with woman, who was nevertheless able to make readers feel they had found a trusted friend.
Though Egg was a phenomenal success on publication, the first book to sell a million copies in under a year, it is the one that is perhaps the most difficult to read today due to MacDonald’s one-sided, unflattering portrayal of Native Americans and of her unsophisticated neighbors (the ones who sued her for libel). Yet at the time it was what the public wanted; her later books, with more broad-minded views, met with less success, leading to an unfortunate cycle of financial and artistic pressure that ended with her heirs owing the advance for unwritten books on her death. Still, she managed to inspire a whole generation of women writers to mine the vein of domestic comedy, and was also a pioneer in her writing about women in the workplace. Her achievements and her frustrations were both important, and Becker brings both aspects to light.
Becker was inspired by the real-life places where Betty MacDonald and her family lived, and if you know Seattle, you’ll especially appreciate her journeys through places like Laurelhurst, Ravenna, and Vashon. How I wish I had known about the house on NE 15th Street — like Becker, I must have driven past it many times, but I never realized its connection with the author. Though the house is now demolished, we can be grateful that Becker has preserved it for us in words, and has given us valuable insights into her world, her books, her family, and the writer herself.