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MacDonald, Betty (Bard)

MacDONALD, Betty (Bard)

Born 26 March 1908, Boulder, Colorado; died 7 February 1958, Seattle, Washington

Daughter of Darsie and Elsie Sanderson Bard; married Robert E.Heskett, 1927 (divorced 1935); Donald C. MacDonald, 1942 (died 1957); children: two daughters

The second of five children, Betty MacDonald lived in Mexico, Idaho, and Montana before her mining-engineer father transferred the family to Seattle. After his death, the children were raised by MacDonald's mother and paternal grandmother. In 1927 MacDonald abandoned art studies at the University of Washington to marry an insurance salesman, who brought her to a chicken ranch on the Olympic Peninsula. They separated in 1931, eventually divorcing in 1935. She remained with her two daughters in her mother's home, holding a variety of jobs until her second marriage, when she moved with her husband to Vashon Island, Puget Sound. They purchased a California ranch in 1955, and stricken with cancer in 1957, MacDonald returned to Seattle for treatment and died at the age of forty-nine.

Yet back in 1943, at her sister Mary's urging, MacDonald took a day from work to prepare a book outline for a visiting publisher's representative. This outline became The Egg and I (1945), and her writing career was launched. MacDonald's major books are autobiographical and are written in high humor. The Egg and I, her witty account of life on a primitive chicken ranch, achieved immediate popularity; one million copies were sold in the first year of publication. In 1947 Universal International released the movie, starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert and featuring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride as Ma and Pa Kettle.

Much of MacDonald's charm as author-character lies in her zealous determination to do the right thing. Nevertheless, her homemade bread is a disaster and her autopsies of spraddled chick carcasses futile ("Cause of death: Eggzema"). Amid the humor, MacDonald probes the loneliness of the farm wife, discovering in a fair exhibit of knotted gunnysacks a pathetic symbol of what isolation can do to a woman. Behind her parade of outlandish characters, she offers carefully muted evidence of her crumbling marriage.

The Plague and I (1948) details MacDonald's battle against tuberculosis at age thirty. Confined in a sanatorium, she sketches other inmates with an artist's precision, barely roaching on her own fears. Anybody Can Do Anything (1950) encompasses her years as a career woman during the Depression, and Onions in the Stew (1955) depicts family life on Vashon Island.

A born humorist with a fine sense of timing, MacDonald knows how to tell a story. Her observations are succinct ("piddocks are clams with some sort of neurosis that makes them afraid to face life"), her caricatures barbed ("a small sharp-cornered woman with a puff of short gray hair like a gone-to-seed dandelion"), and her language friendly and pleasantly earthy. Less generally recognized is her affinity to nature. In MacDonald's almost lyric descriptions of mountains in the mist, damp green rain forests, and the earth itself, the eye of the art student never deserts her.

MacDonald's humor is frequently self-deprecatory. Actually quite competent, she creates an impression of hopeless ineptness, at the same time praising courageous women like her mother and sister. Her ambivalence toward housework and domesticity is striking. She genuinely loves children and displays a gregarious nature, yet one senses in her writing a barely repressed undercurrent of frustration, almost anger, at the subordinate role wife and mother must play in society.

Critically dismissed as a "regional" and "popular" writer, MacDonald still projects an easy warmth and familiarity that draw her reader close. Though her popularity has waned since the 1950s, MacDonald's work is worthy of rediscovery; her comments are as pungent, her characters as delightful as ever.

Other Works:

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1947). Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Magic (1949). Nancy and Plum (1952). Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle's Farm (1954). Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (1957). Who, Me? The Autobiography of Betty MacDonald (1959).

Bibliography:

Spacks, P. M., The Female Imagination (1975).

Reference works:

CA (1987). CB (1947). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). TCA (1955).

Other references:

NYT (8 Feb. 1958). Saturday Review (14 May 1955). Tacoma News Tribune (28 Aug. 1977).

—JOANNE McCARTHY

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