by Betty MacDonald
In the late 1920s/early 1930s, a very young wife supports her husband in his dream of running a chicken ranch in a very rural part of the Pacific Northwest. This humorous memoir recounts the trials and errors of building a life on the isolated ranch, interactions with outlandish neighbors, and assorted musings on the beauty of the Olympic Peninsula.
I found The Egg and I to be thoroughly readable, often interesting, and frequently amusing (though only rarely laugh-out-loud funny). It is true that her some of her stereotypes jar on modern sensibilities, but it may help to remember that the author and her work are products of their time, which should alleviate at least some of the insult. (How would any of us fare, if judged by the standards of certain other eras? In one way or another, I'm sure we'd fail to measure up.) Indeed, the copy I read had what amounted to a disclaimer or apology as a foreword, written by MacDonald's children on behalf of the woman herself. If their mother had still been alive, they assured the reader, her views would have changed with the times.
Because this is a memoir (and one written twenty years down the road from when the events took place), I find myself wondering how accurate certain portrayals are. For instance, her husband sounds absolutely awful to me (despite the fact that we are told repeatedly that he's handsome and handy and a natural at chicken-ranching)-- so perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise to learn after reading that she eventually divorced him. (I'm much more surprised that after she re-married, she and her second husband also took up chicken ranching! I would've thought she'd had enough of that lifestyle.)
Then there are the neighbors and the Indians... I have no doubt that at least most of the specific incidents she relates were based in truth, but... wow. That sums it up: WOW. No wonder some of her neighbors sued her after the book and the film came out! I did wonder how she dared publish some of those depictions, if these people were still her "friends" and neighbors. It explains a lot that she had since moved away.
While reading, I had the passing fancy that it would be even more interesting (to me, personally) to read a similar account of rural life in my own little section of the country, back in the 20s/30s, when my great-grandparents would've been carving out lives of their own from this wilderness, with its own set of challenges, beauties, and bounties. Then I paused and had second thoughts. I don't know that I'd like to read this author's version of the area and the people...
My biggest surprise was at the foul language (of certain secondary characters) and the distastefulness of some of the topics addressed. I knew little about the book, going in-- just that it was a funny book about chicken "farming" and that it had been made into a movie in the 40s. I guess I foolishly assumed that the book would have the same flavor (and comparative innocence) as your typical humorous 40s film. I was certainly not expecting so much cursing (though it's mild compared to what you can easily encounter today)-- not to mention things like "laying up" (extramarital affairs), abortion, syphilis, alcoholism, etc. Of course those things existed back then, but I wasn't expecting to encounter them in a humorous memoir of the period.
Though parts of the book were amusing, it also had many moments of bleakness, unhappiness, and disgust. I found it an odd mix. It also seemed to end rather abruptly. Since it's a memoir and not a tightly-plotted novel, that may be par for the course-- but it felt abrupt, all the same.
I wouldn't mind reading some of the author's other memoirs, at some point-- especially Onions in the Stew. At least I now know what to expect!