Although Betty MacDonald’s old homestead is virtually around the corner from my home in Washington state, I grew up three thousand miles away in Holyoke, Massachusetts where I savored MacDonald’s Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. I read the same stories to my daughter. I laughed uncontrollably at the Fred McMurray movie, based on her memoir. So, I was a fan of MacDonald’s before I began her bestseller The Egg and I.
Written in 1945, the story has the same theme as my Of Gods and Goats –a city woman moves to an isolated mountain farm, unprepared to live with no water, plumbing or heat. MacDonald’s acerbic wit is irreverent and hysterical. Rhythmically, it carries you along with anthropomorisms which stretch from feisty Stove to the white bearded mountains. Her tongue becomes so bitter that two lawsuits for slander (including one by the famous Kettles of the Kettle movies) were brought against her. Chapters concerning Native Americans offend. If I believed in banning books, I’d ban a chapter or two.
But, Betty spins a terrific yarn as she describes how much more useful classes in chicken raising would have been than ballet, how reading is considered a lazy man’s work, and how lonely she becomes hidden away in the foothills of the Olympic mountains. I laughed at her high brow tone from beginning to end.
Curious, I googled Betty MacDonald. She lived on the farm just four years, moved to Seattle, and then to Vashon Island. She died at the age of forty-nine. Her first husband, the one with whom she lived in The Egg and I, was stabbed in a fight over a woman in California some years later. This ending seemed especially sad after laughing through 287 pages of her sharp tongued wit.
Another book I’d heard of came to mind when I read at my writing class from my manuscript about goat herding in France. Every night my classmates chirped in unison, “High on hillside…the lonely goatherd…” First annoyed, then embarrassed, I lightened up and wondered about the real story behind “The Sound of Music.”
The Trapp Family Singers surprised me. A tale of survival and ingenuity, Singers is astounding, especially after the family arrives in the United States, penniless. Written by Maria Von Trapp, the tale is woven with humor, history, and a deep spirituality. Written as half-memoir, half-biography, here’s a secret: THERE IS NO GOATHERD!