The Egg & I by Betty MacDonald

The Egg and I is a memoir by Betty MacDonald, who was born in 1907. It was originally published in 1945. After living a colorful life with her fastidious father, mother, siblings, and the rustic Gammy, Betty MacDonald marries a former Marine named Bob when she is 18 and he is 31. Though he has a job, he used to work in egg production and dreams of owning his own chicken ranch. The newlyweds purchase a farm that “looked distressingly forlorn” and was known as “the little old deserted farm that people point at from car windows, saying, ‘Look at that picturesque old place!’ then quickly drive by toward something not so picturesque, but warmer and nearer to civilization.” The farm was located on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, the point furthest west in the contiguous United States.

The neighbors are about four miles away. The Kettles live like animals in filthy house, a barn so full of manure the husband lights the structure on fire to avoid cleaning it, fifteen children run wild, the pets are covered in lice, and fly paper hangs everywhere. Mr. Kettle spends his days begging and borrowing to avoid doing work, but Mrs. Kettle, despite her raggedy edges, is Betty MacDonald’s favorite friend.

The Hicks family is on the other side of Betty and Bob’s ranch, and the wife is practically a machine in the way she cleans and cooks and sews. The neighbors could not be more opposite, yet despite her more sanitary home, Mrs. Hicks is not the friend who amuses Betty.

The Olympic Peninsula is home to Native American tribes, and while Bob befriends several tribesmen, Betty has a strong hatred of anything “Indian.” On the one hand, two strange Native men showed up looking for Bob while he was not home, and instead of leaving when she asked, they pushed their way in the house and demanded to be fed. When asked again to leave, one man headed toward the room where the baby was sleeping, and Betty forced them to leave at gun point.

On the other hand, Betty judges tribal people harshly for the same flaws we see in the Kettle family: feral children, unsanitary conditions, and laziness. While it’s hard to read the author’s prejudice on the page, given the context and time period, it’s not out of place. In the new introduction, Betty MacDonald’s daughters write, “We are certain that if Betty were alive today, she would address the plight of the American Indian in a much different manner.”

Considered a classic, The Egg and I stands out among other farm memoirs for the descriptions, humor, and close inspection of romanticizing hard work. I’ve never read another author who handles metaphor and simile so beautifully. Very simply, MacDonald writes, “Until I moved to the ranch, the coming of spring had been a gradual and painless thing, like a developing bust.” However, she has a few pages dedicated to “Town” personified, carrots begin to peek out of the ground like ladies showing off their bare shoulders, and the mountains are a character themselves.

The humor largely comes from the author’s ability to capture the people she meets in a most intimate way. How they speak, the way they move physically, their morals and attitudes, even how they became who they are at present (Mrs. Kettle was not always a slovenly human) are all meticulously detailed in the most delightful way. The Kettle’s speech could have me laughing for days, and I’m restraining myself by not quoting them ad nauseam. They are the basis for the hit Ma and Pa Kettle movies, which were successful in the box office and received Oscar attention.

Low-resolution reproduction of poster for the film The Kettles on Old MacDonald’s Farm (1957), featuring stars Marjorie Main and Parker Fennelly

MacDonald doesn’t spare herself in her humor, though. Her husband seems impatient, and the author writes it off as her own flaws or perhaps an indication of the times (yet it’s telling that they were married in 1927, and divorced in 1931, according to Wikipedia). At dinner one night, Bob is complaining that dogs are meant to be tools to a rancher, and laments “the heinous crime of treating dogs like pampered humans — here, I surreptitiously placed my napkin over the puppy who was lounging in my lap. . .”

I do find myself romanticizing homes with no nearby neighbors except the mountains. Making your own food, taking charge of your own home — these things stand out to me because my entire adult life I’ve rented, feel lucky to have a back porch (definitely no gardens), and have never had my dream pantry or a place with two toilets. MacDonald appreciates the bountiful harvest she and Bob can barely keep up with, canning everything in sight with enough to last years, and can watch the sun rise and set with a mountain backdrop.

But in her world, days start at 4AM and end around 9PM. There’s no indoor plumbing, so water must hauled, lamps lit, a stove maintained. Spring chicks must have new water hauled to them every three hours to avoid killing them with water that’s too cold. The floor is scrubbed daily, as are all the farm buildings to avoid disease. Added to the mix are a wildcat stalking the family and a new baby to raise. Only the author’s and her husband’s families seem to understand the ranch is too hard, but friends swoon in jealousy. MacDonald makes it clear that life is not easy — likely why the memoir ends with Bob suggesting they buy a ranch in Seattle with modern amenities after only four years on the isolated home they built together.

Although the back of the book synopsis says everything was chaos “and then came the children,” only one baby is described in The Egg and I, and not much is paid attention to her. Nor do I know what happens after Bob says he wants to buy the ranch in Seattle. I guess this means I have to read the next memoir, The Plague and I. Thanks to Bill @ Australian Legend for recommending this farm memoir to me back when I asked for suggestions to complement my reading of Sheepish and Half-Broke.

31 comments

  1. I remember lying on the lounge room floor to read my mother’s copy of this 55 or 60 years ago. I loved it and I’m sorry I don’t remember the Native Americans. Surprisingly, although I saw enough flickering Ma & Pa Kettle movies in the town halls of country towns as I was growing up I didn’t realise that they were the Kettles from the book. Glad you liked it. What would you like me to recommend next? (I review a very good SF in my next post).

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    • Thank you for the offer to help. I think I’m going to finish the MacDonald series first. There are several more books, and as another reader commented, some of the other books might be even better. I love picturing you as a boy on the floor reading. It’s a very sweet image.

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    • I’ve never seen the movies, but I know my family would use “Ma and Pa Kettle” to describe people who acted like hillbillies, so I had an idea about them. I didn’t put together that the the Kettles were a movie and not just an idiom, nor that they were the same people from the book, until I started writing my review and looking for some dates in MacDonald’s life.

      What made the audio production so good? I love a full-cast production of a book, such as The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

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  2. I enjoyed reading your review of this book! This book sounds like a humorous but well-balanced depiction of what life on a farm might really be like. And I love when authors aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves in their writing!

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    • The introduction wasn’t enormously long, but it did sound like MacDonald moved around a lot and was exposed to a variety of people. She had one “fancy” grandmother and one that was more like the Kettles, so when she gets these neighbors who are similar to her grandmothers. MacDonald’s father tried to raise his children to be well-rounded, which means she’s almost got this Victorian-lady background. Then, you stick her on a chicken ranch with no electricity or running water (or doors for a while), and it’s quite funny.

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    • Thanks, Laila. I can’t believe they were real people, and I would assume they were cleaned up a bit for the movies. In the book, the mother has a daughter she calls “Tits,” and I can’t see that word appearing in films from the 1940s and 50s!

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  3. Well this is interesting! Like you, I can romanticize living off the land, but in actuality we both know how difficult it would be. I’ve been keeping skip the dishes alive here in Calgary, getting food delivered to my door (delicious food!) seems like the ultimate luxury that I am not willing to give up 🙂

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  4. This sounds very entertaining! My mum’s parents lived in the middle of nowhere (relative to the UK) and grew most of their own food – but my granddad was a labourer on a local farm so they had a source of income. I’m always amazed at how much work they were still doing to keep the place going well into my childhood. Farming is extremely hard work!

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    • I used to be in a book club with a bunch of elderly ladies — I’m talking 70s to 90s in age — and we read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. Kingsolver absolutely romanticized farm work and had her family live for one year on only food that could be produced and bought within 100 miles of their home. She even argues that people in apartments in big cities should have window gardens that sustain them to some degree. With a steady paycheck from her writing, in addition to her farming/gardening, it seemed like Kingsolver was being incredibly unrealistic. The old ladies sure let the author have it at book club that month! They had grown up on farms where it was farm or die.

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  5. How interesting, I have read quite a few books about having a smallholding in the UK but not many US ones. Had never heard of the Kettles though, unsurprisingly.

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  6. Great review! Having lived on a farm most of my life, I can definitely concur that the ideal of the isolated house and sustainable lifestyle do not quite match the reality of all the hard work that has to go into keeping it up. And that’s a lesson I learned WITHOUT animals being kept on the property for most of my lifetime, which surely makes this harder. Although, my parents have allowed my youngest brother to take on some chickens this summer (it’s meant to teach him some responsibility, he’s 14 and having a rebellious stage) which I’m sure will be an interesting experiment all around. That said, I’m sure living on the West coast is a bit of a different experience in itself- I’ve never actually been that far, though I’d love to go!

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    • I haven’t been to Washington state at all, but the author mentions constant rain. I know chicks have to be kept warm, and if the water is too cold, they can die, so MacDonald is constantly refilling their water so it is temperate in the winter. I’ll bet you’d like this book. It’s both lyrical and funny, and all on a chicken ranch.

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  7. Interesting! I’ve never heard of this book. I love the idea of remote homes without neighbors, especially now. During this pandemic, I’ve learned that I like the isolation (it’s the impending sense of doom from a virus and political dysfunction that I don’t like!). I haven’t been reading much lately, but I’ll add this book to my list.

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    • YES! I have the exact feeling about the pandemic, Amal. I keep thinking, “Alright, whose going to be the person who kills me? Which family member am I going to have to ex-communicate for saying the current dictator-in-the-making is great?” IT’S EXHAUSTING.

      I think your love of outdoors will make The Egg & I extra click with you.

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  8. Oy. We need to scrub the floors more often than we do. Probably daily. But I just… I cannot. It’s so much work! I wish our lifestyle could afford a maid. Can you imagine? A maid service at a farmhouse? XD We have snakes and mice hiding in places and more dust and dirt than I have ever seen before and… yeah. I cannot imagine it.

    I think it’s interesting that the book has “The Enduring Classic” printed on the cover. Is that because the Kettles are iconic now? Or is this book itself a classic and I’ve just never heard of it?

    Time to go change the water for our new chicks. I kid you not.

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