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The Egg and I - Revisited

February 9, 2011

Tags: order, antibiotics, Anybody Can Do Anything, Betty MacDonald (1908-1958), books, chicken farm, Chopin - Frederic (1810-1849), consumption, Great Depression, INH, isoniazid, Kneipp - Sebastian, MacDonald - Betty, Modigliani - Amedeo, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, Native Americans, Onions in the Stew, Gauguin - Paul, sanatorium, Sebastian Kneipp - Water Doctor, Sterne Laurence, Stevenson - Robert Louis, Stravinsky - Igor, The Egg and I, The Egg and I - Revisited, The Plague and I, t.b., Thomas - Dylan, tubercle bacilli, tuberculosis, Wikipedia, Wolfe - Thomas

In Vermont, at our friends house, I stumbled upon an old book that had been big in the fifties – I saw my mother read it: “The Egg and I.” My mother usually was not a reader (she also was unhappy that she had given birth to this little bookish, red-haired girl that could neither dance nor sing). Our friends generously send the book home with me as a present. And what I found is that her books have aged gracefully; I am still laughing out loud. “The Egg and I” tells how Betty MacDonald as a child bride follows her taciturn husband to the Waof no running water, neighbors miles away, cooking, baking, cleaning, washing without modern amenities – and the dreadful chore of feeding and watering the chicks every three hours around the clock, all the while bears and cougars lurking behind in the woods. The book was a huge success. Because he describes her utter loneliness with a wonderful humor. No self-pity there (or let’s call it: hilariously disguised self-pity). By the next book “Anybody Can Do Anything,” Betty has left her chicken-farmer husband, predictably, and returns to her fun-loving but poor family: a doting mother, three sisters and a brother. This happens during the Great Depression, and they make do. They sing and scrimp and suffer, Betty as a working girl in an office – and all those pains make another sidesplitting novel. Presently, I am reading “The Plague and I,” her third novel, about the time she is diagnosed with tuberculosis – she calls it t.b. - and spends a year in a sanatorium. Hardship and scrimping have made her sick – don’t forget, this was the time before antibiotics, and many people were coughing and hacking and spreading deadly tubercle bacilli. Only in the fifties, the first tuberculocidal (meaning: able to kill tubercle bacilli) drug arrived: INH or isoniazid. Before, they had streptomycin which could not kill the bacilli, but at least helped to wall off the disease. I remember getting twice daily a HUGE syringe full of that stuff in one of my buttocks, until I could not lie on my sides any longer. Many children and adults still died, especially in Europe after World War II, when food was scarce. Out of this gruesome material Betty MacDonald shapes another highly amusing novel. Nowadays, tuberculosis is rare> But at that time, it was a big threat.

The year I spent in a tuberculosis sanatorium as a young girl, and my experiences of the disease, went into the Nora character in “Sebastian Kneipp, Water Doctor.” In the nineteenth century, when Kneipp lived (1821 to 1897), they called the disease consumption. The list of writers, artists, composers who died of consumption seems endless: Laurence Sterne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, Paul Gauguin, Amedeo Modigliani, Frederic Chopin, Igor Stravinsky were among them.

Betty MacDonalds last novel “Onions in the Stew” shows her finally having reached some normalcy: a husband, a house, and not any longer the constant struggle for survival. Perhaps for that reason I don’t find it all that interesting – but she milks the rainy weather of the northern West Coast for all the laughs she can get out of them.

Critics have argued with her description of Native Americans in the book – and I cringed some, too. She seemed unrepentant and said: ”Drunk and dirty is drunk and dirty.” Yet in “The Plague and I” she describes lovingly Oriental and black characters – a making-good of sorts, it seems to me.

Wikipedia shows Betty MacDonald on its long list of tuberculosis victims, but most sources report that this mirthful writer died of cancer – at age 49. Nobody got as much fun out of hardship as she did. And did you know that she is also the author of the "Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle" children's series?
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