Onions in the Stew by Betty MacDonald

It’s the fourth and last Betty MacDonald (she/her) book! In this conclusion memoir entitled Onions in the Stew, MacDonald is married to her second husband, Don, and they are raising daughters Anne and Joan (who no longer see their biological father, whom I presume is still back on the chicken farm). Trying to find a place to live in Washington State during WWII seems impossible, but the family eventually finds a beautiful log home on Vashon Island by Puget Sound. Betty is no longer a Depression Era hustler; she is a full-time writer. Of course, life around her is inspiration for her memoirs, as always, but now Anne and Joan are people in their own right. Talkative, opinionated, and quite different, the daughters are obsessed with curling their hair, friends, and smoking.

While it’s natural that MacDonald’s tuberculosis year wasn’t funny, I wanted that belly-laugh humor from her first memoir, and I got it when she describes gardening, all-night parties, her daughters’ fashion whims, the way she describes a dog, etc. Really, there were many times Nick and I laughed as I read this aloud to him. When asked if he could swim, Don seriously replies, “I would be able to if my bones weren’t so heavy. I always sink.”

But, be aware that MacDonald is a product of her environment, and the setting is WWII. At one point her Japanese neighbor shows MacDonald the family photo album. MacDonald recalls, “For several hours we sat on the couch and looked at faded pictures of indistinct people who all looked exactly alike.” But then it dawned on me why MacDonald described the people as looking “exactly alike.” The casual xenophobia almost slipped by me because I’m not used to people saying such ignorant things.

Another situation with a Japanese-American family is pitched to readers as a fortuitous event. Before finding the house on Vashon, the MacDonalds are struggling to find a home to rent. The place they find opens up only after a “…very charming Japanese profession, who with his wife lived in the top part of the duplex, came down and told us they were being sent to internment camp and we could have their apartment. We thanked them fervently…” On the one hand, I asked if MacDonald knew what internment camps were at the time. The government did create them for “safety.” On the other, she wrote her novel in the 1950s, with enough time that I would think Americans understood the great civil rights violation done to Japanese-American citizens.

To clarify two of my content warnings below, an entire chapter is devoted to a mother with more children than she manage who doesn’t care bodily for them at all. She complains about her husband being an awful drunk, but after learning the family has money for a nanny and a maid but the wife prefers to cling to her victim story, MacDonald realizes the husband drinks casually and is embarrassed by his manipulative wife and disobedient children. The little ones frequently sit in wet underpants, run around and destroy things, and need haircuts.

As for animals, one summer so many animals perish near the MacDonald home I thought it was cursed. Some animals die to become food, others are unlucky, like the outdoor cats. What would be considered abuse today passes for normal in the 1940s. For example, a sick cat on his last paw isn’t taken to the vet, he’s fed a nice meal laced with poison (weirdly, the cat comes out alive and better). So, while Onions in the Stew is enjoyable in many ways, it is still written by a famous straight white woman during a turbulent period in American history. She’s got a cheerful “Aw, jeez” attitude that looks naive compared to what’s going on around her.

CW: racism, animal death, child neglect

16 comments

  1. I recently downloaded the audiobook for The Egg and I. Although I’ve put it to the side for the minute, I was interested that the introduction by her children reflected on some of the language used and the way that they thought Betty would change that for a contemporary (in the 80s) audience. They particularly write about the way she depicted “the American Indian”, and that they hope she would have more compassion and respect writing in the 80s. It sounds like this book has similarly thoughtless and of-its-time bits.

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    • Onions in the Stew was actually much more blatantly thoughtless, especially toward Japanese people. In the scene from The Egg & I that MacDonald’s daughters describe, the author was attacked by a man and then had negative opinions afterward due to him being a Native American. Although she’s wrong to associate the two, I know such thinking happens. As for Onions in the Stew, I’m not sure what happened there!

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  2. I’ve been surprised by how many adults still don’t know about the internment camps for Japanese Americans and Canadians so I could believe that even in the 50s she wasn’t fully aware of what truly happened. A casual attitude toward child abuse around her seems less understandable to me.

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    • You know, you’re right about folks not knowing about the internment camps. I had assumed this information was less known because it’s not taught in schools (at least not in mine, that’s for sure).

      MacDonald knew those children were neglected, and she tried to fix them up one day when she babysat the by washing all their clothes, giving them baths, cutting their hair, feeding them, and putting them down for naps. But then when their mother showed up the mother was mad that MacDonald had the audacity to make such decisions for her children.

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      • It wasn’t taught when I was in school but I think it is now at least.

        That would be hard, especially since I guess there wouldn’t have been much in the way of social services to help out at that time.

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  3. Melanie. How did I not connect this lady with the Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books? I loved those books as a child. I googled her after reading this and discovered she wrote those – how did I not know this? You probably mentioned it before and I just didn’t see it. Did you ever read those as a kid? I have no clue how they’d hold up now.

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    • I didn’t mention Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books because I never read them when I was growing up. I had heard many times of Ma and Pa Kettle, though, because they were a reference my grandparents often used. I’ve never seen the show, though. MacDonald had a big impact on culture, and yet I never connected her to those cultural touchstones!

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  4. I set you on a longer chain of books than I expected. Do you start on Ma and Pa Kettle next? I saw a couple of those movies when they were touring little country towns. It’s interesting how every now and then a complete amateur will build a career on the basis of one book of funny stories about their life and, generally, hard times.

    It’s sad that the populace will tolerate internment camps for different racial groups and yet be friends, or claim to be friends with particular member of that race. We (Australia) locked up Germans, Italians and Japanese – my great uncle, a businessman who had migrated to Australia from Prussia (before it was Germany) was locked up during WW1 and then deported for life, separated from his Australian wife and children.
    Now we do exactly the same to brown skinned people who have been granted refugee status but entered the country without visas. Be certain that any blonde Ukranians who want to come here will be promptly admitted.

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    • You did set me down quite a trail! The movies are old enough that I don’t see them freely available at the library, so it will probably end here (unless they are on YouTube…). Also, I have to imagine the movies are rather sanitized compared to the books. I mean, one girl in The Egg and I was called “Tits.”

      Your comment about Ukraine is tough because while I agree that Western countries are more likely to let in blond people, including the U.S., including Trump who hated immigrants but married a few of them if they were “hot” enough, but on the other hand, I wouldn’t make little of refugees of any background because wrongs were committed in the past.

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  5. Yikes! Definitely some issues with this lady’s perspective. The 1950s does seem like she should be a little more aware of how harmful some of these things are (like the internment camps) but then again, I look at the opinions of some of my elders and think ‘how could you think that’ and they were kids back in the 1950s, so maybe I’m not being realistic enough about the information they had access to / were willing to listen to. Compared to my doomscrolling on twitter, what sources of information and news did they have? The radio, in some cases tv, and newspapers. It would all depend on the paper you chose to read, the radio station you chose to listen to, etc. It wouldn’t have been as bad as facebook or anything, but it still makes you wonder…

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    • You bring up so many good examples. People often had local news sources, and by the time it reached them, the news was old. There’s talking to your community, but likely your community is homogeneous and thinks just as you do.

      One of the worst bosses I’ve ever had still taught me one valuable thing: from the standpoint of someone with a PhD in psychology, our brains were not designed to take in the amount of information we now get, which is both incessant and global.

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