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