Deciding against loneliness, an outhouse, and no electricity, Betty MacDonald (she/her) packed up her two toddlers and left her husband Bob on his chicken farm (The Egg and I) in the middle of nowhere Washington. According to the internet, Betty MacDonald and Bob almost never spoke after she left and divorced him. It was 1931, and Betty was twenty-four, heading to Seattle where her mother and sisters (her father had passed) lived in one house. It was there that the rascally sister Mary, claiming that “anybody could do anything” for work despite it being The Depression, who drives the comedy in Betty’s third memoir.
Betty begins Anybody Can Do Anything arriving in Seattle, Washington and then going into her childhood, giving plenty of examples of Mary coaxing all the siblings into trouble because it seems like Mary might get or learn something as a result. Mary’s attitude doesn’t change in adulthood. When Betty suggests she attend night school because she has no skills beyond egg farmer’s wife, Mary notes that executives raking in the money don’t go to night school. Still, Betty frets over her inability to type or do shorthard or even file properly, because Mary keeps setting Betty up at secretarial jobs. As a result, both Mary and Betty hop from job to job, always unqualified, but somehow pulling the work off long enough to make money for the family home.
Somewhere near the later 80% Betty mentions she had a bout of tuberculosis, which is where The Plague and I, her second memoir and the only one serious in tone, fits in. Yet, Anybody Can Do Anything is full of running around and goofiness. For instance, Betty is sent to night school — twice — by different bosses for her ineptitude. When Betty questions her employable skills, Mary notes, “There were hundreds of applicants for this job, among them many little white-faced creeps who could take shorthand two hundred words a minute and could type so fast the carriage smoked, but who cares? Do they know a good bootlegger?” Although Betty is the writer, she wisely allows Mary to be the star, showcasing her sister’s personality and ambition, her ability to network to better paying gigs despite lack of qualifications.
But, it is The Depression, so the family has to make due. Betty explains, “. . . on Monday night we usually went to the movies because Monday was family night at our neighbourhood theatre, and an unlimited group arriving together and appearing reasonably compatible could all get in for twenty-five cents.” Such details of how the entertainment industry still crept forward in The Depression, and how families got by with some happiness (lots of home visitors and playing records), were like opening a window to the past.
Even then Mary’s ingenious for getting things strikes, such as altering a dress right before a party, a dress she claims she made out of some old curtains and potholders just ten minutes prior, which impresses a rich woman who then donates clothes, explaining, “Some things I’ve hardly worn and thought you and your brave little family might use.” Brave indeed. Mary was largely trying to fancy-up the wardrobe she and her sisters shared. Granted, each woman only had one pair of stockings, likely found at a bargain mart of (possibly stole) clothing goods, but the family has a home, food, and a couple of outfits for each woman that they share and rotate.
Glad I was to come back to Betty MacDonald’s humorous stories. Although The Depression was serious, I was ready for the author’s well-known wry humor. I could almost picture Lucille Ball and Ethel Merman as Mary and Betty. In fact, it was Mary’s scheming and connections that got Betty in touch with a publisher, which the author discusses in the final chapters of the book, including how Mary always sees more potential in Betty than Betty sees in herself.
Also, you do not need to read the previous two memoirs to follow along at all!