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.
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.