Anybody Can Do Anything by Betty MacDonald

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!

33 comments

  1. I like the sounds of Mary! What a woman. ❤
    Not that we are anywhere near Great Depression level but I feel like a lot of families are moving in together to get through this pandemic. We're learning that we can get by on less when we put our minds to it. To a lot of people, they've learned that they don't have to keep their shit job to make ends meet. If they combine resources, they can work somewhere that makes them happier and still pays the bills and puts food on the table.
    I tell my friends often that I wish we all lived on the same block. We all have different talents, and we could be bartering and trading them back and forth and make our lives easier while spending less money.

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    • You know, a lot of cultures normalize living together, and I wonder what such independence has done to us Americans. Imagine if you and Ignited Moth all lived together. Imagine if your friends or relatives who have kids bought a huge house with another family, and they all lived and cooperated. Co-ops — it’s right there in the name. I saw a news segment about how in Japan it’s normal for one of the grandmothers to move in when a couple has a new baby. The mom happily goes back to work and has a break from baby life but comes home and doesn’t feel guilty or like she left her kind with some rando. I’m not sure we’re doing a lot of things right in the U.S…

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      • I’m pretty sure the United States went, “What is everyone else doing? Let’s do the complete opposite of that!” Whether it was something that works or not.
        We’ve talked about how I don’t want kids but if I did have them, I would feel uncomfortable leaving them with a stranger. I’ve read too many horror stories. (Then again, I’ve read horror stories involving relatives too.) My dad was lucky and my grandparents and my aunt, and a few of his close friends all loved watching me. I was also a latchkey kid. He didn’t abuse the network around him so that they got a break too and honestly, I loved latchkey.
        Back to co-op situations though. We have friends that really want to move to our town and they really want to get a dog when they do. We’ve already agreed to assist watching each other’s dogs when needed, which will be amazing. Plus, the boys want to hunt and fish together so we can stock up our freezers.

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        • That will be so cool! In my Deaf Culture class we talked about how hearing Americans are individualists: we do everything ourselves, feel weak when we don’t, and take all the credit when something good happens. In Deaf Culture, though, they’re all looking out for each other, sharing skills and resources, and support each other by telling everyone they know to go to the Deaf doctor, the Deaf lawyer, the convenience store owned by the Deaf couple, etc. One Deaf person succeeds? It’s everybody’s win.

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  2. In Australia anyway, it probably took till the 1960s before we were properly out of Depression era housing conditions. We took on the British fad then of slum reclamation, demolishing rows of workers cottages in the inner suburbs to build soulless housing towers (still there!). Even when I was a young man (early 70s) there were plenty of old houses divided up with cheap partitions to make rooming houses – I lived in a couple, $8/week from memory.

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    • Obviously I can’t speak to the experience in Australia, but I wouldn’t be so sure that the tower blocks in the UK are soulless! Obviously there are some that have been very poorly maintained and have developed a bad reputation, but I live in a 1950s council flat now (and grew up in one as well) and I love my flat. It’s got much bigger and better made rooms than the crumbling Victorian terraces that they replaced – I’ve lived in a couple of those too and would never choose to live in one again.

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      • The house we’re buying was made in 1950, and I felt surprised by how solid the floors are, for example. Somewhere in there we went the pre-fab route, likely to save money for families that needed it, but the rest is we do have a lot of houses that look identical but are falling apart. Another issue with older buildings is they are not up to code for people with disabilities, nor do they have to be in the U.S.

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      • Lou, all I know about UK tower blocks is from watching The Bill, and I know less about Australian ones. Like most middle class people I accept the criticism of the towers without thinking, mostly because we would all much rather own a cute, gentrified inner city cottage in a Victorian streetscape. The towers (in Melbourne) were/are used mainly for incoming migrants and I think that without shops and halls it was very hard to develop a sense of community. But I don’t know and I don’t know anyone who lives in one.

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        • Nick and I looked into buy a condo, which is sort of like having an apartment that you own, but the big turn off was the home owner’s association fees and bickering. Not sure if you guys have those in Australia or England.

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          • I live in a ‘condo’. The fees aren’t too bad and I ignore the owner’s committee. The 1960s tower blocks were state owned (council owned in UK) for low income families. To solve the post-Depression housing crisis, after WWII the states built whole suburbs or weatherboard and fibro housing and rented them out to working class families.

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            • The stories about living under a home owner’s association in the U.S. could fill your nightmares for years: your truck is slightly too big, your grass is the wrong breed, whether you can put up a flag, etc. Jackie and her husband got dinged for a bush in their front yard that had started to die and wasn’t the right color of green. Her husband went out and spray painted it and never heard from them again. That was their last house, and now they have the farm.

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    • I can’t believe, yet I totally believe, the housing crisis happening right now. I hadn’t even realized that companies were buying up houses to sell for more expensive, artificially inflating the housing market. And that landlords are part of this scheme and charging more per month for rent that you would pay for a mortgage with the interest, house, and mortgage insurance all thrown in.

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  3. This sounds fun! It kind of reminds me of the stories my grandmother would tell about the Depression and World War II. She mostly focused on the parties she went to and the boys she danced with!

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    • My grandparents did not have stories about different time periods. It seems like they were the same people for decades, living outside of history, just being the same. My GREAT-grandmother, who was a one-room schoolhouse teacher, had stories about what it was like during her life for a time, and those are wonderful. I especially like how they made ice cream at home and how teachers were single women who often spent the night in their students’ homes due to winter weather.

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      • My one set of grandparents died when I was young so I didn’t hear many stories directly from them. I wish I had – they were both very adventurous people. My other grandmother was more sheltered; she was a teenager during the depression and during the war her dad was too old to serve and her brothers too young so it was all kind of distanced from here. She and her friends would go to dances and meet soldiers but she didn’t meet my grandfather until later.

        Did you know your great-grandmother? How fantastic! Those stories remind me of Laura Ingalls Wilder!

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        • Up until my generation, everyone got married at 18 or 19 and then had a baby by age 20 or 21, we we’ve had several generations alive at once. There is a picture of my niece as a baby, her dad (my brother), my mom, her mom, and her mom’s mom. Five generations. Too wild.

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          • Whoa, that’s so cool to have multiple generations together like that! I’m always blown away when people my age have grandparents who are still alive because mine have been gone for so long. My girls have great-grandparents on Peter’s side which I think is pretty cool.

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  4. This sounds really interesting – I still have The Egg and I on my wishlist, but it’s hard to get in the UK. I’m considering giving the audiobook a try though, since it’s available on Audible now!

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    • Oh, wonderful! It is really, truly a fun and funny story. Her TB book was slightly humorous in places, but mostly educational. This 3rd book was frantic, a sort of racing around. Nick and I are on her last book, and it’s much more funny again, like The Egg and I. We’ve come full circle!

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  5. Gosh it’s weird to say this book about the depression sounds like a hoot, but it totally does! I so admire women who can sew anything quickly, it’s a skill that so many of us lack nowadays, I’m indebted to my local tailor LOL

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  6. I respect the crap out of people with chutzpah enough to get a job they are underqualified for. These are the schmoozers; the salespeople with endless charisma. Can. Not. Relate. But it must be interesting to read about Mary from Betty’s eyes – seeing Mary thrive when Betty cannot imagine taking the next step. What an astounding personality.

    I apologize – I can’t recall why you started reading all of MacDonalds memoirs. Can you remind me? I am loving following your journey here. Do you see her writing changing at all? Do you know if she wrote these as she experienced them, or later in life?

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    • I started with The Egg & I, which you should absolutely read, early in the pandemic because Bill thought it would make me happy. Then I read book 2 (about tuberculosis, not funny), this one (funny, definitely many scenes), and I’m reading to Nick the last one (funny again). The books were published decades, I believe, after the experiences, and then she quickly up and died a fairly young woman.

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      • I remember you reading The Egg & I and adding it to my TBR. It did make you happy, if I recall. Even though it was a bit sad sometimes. 😉

        Wow. That’s one heck of a way to tell your story. Decades later, write a ton of memoirs, then croak. I think I’ll do that. Though, I don’t know if I have much worth writing about…

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