Betty MacDonald & Co.: Write Your Memoir for Laughs!

We all enjoy cheery, witty memoirs.  Everybody loves Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I, a hilarious, if despairing, memoir about life on a run-down chicken ranch. Not surprisingly, it was not Betty’s dream to raise chickens. She followed her husband Bob to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.  Her mother told her you should always help your husband in his work.  It is clear that raising chickens is not fun. It is clear that Betty is not happy. And yet she stays upbeat in her writing. This upbeat humor outshines the melancholy #MeToo Twitter memoirs any day.

I’m not at all sure this isn’t the best way to write a memoir. Think Cornelia Otis Skinner, Emily Kimbrough, Jean Kerr, Carrie Fisher, and Louise Dickinson Rich.

The following excerpt illustrates Betty’s uncanny gift for satire.  And I love her exclamation marks.

Aunty Vida took another swallow of coffee, rinsed it around in her mouth as if it were antiseptic, and said, “You have solved the problem of living! You have the answer to happiness! There are thousands of people in this bitter old world who only hope some day to achieve by dint of hard work and sacrifice what you and Bob have now!” It was nine o’clock in the morning. Bob and I had been up since four and had not gone to bed till after twelve. Aunty Vida was just having breakfast. It was that part about others hoping by dint of hard work and sacrifice what Bob and I already had, that got me.

Now if I wrote a memoir, humor would be the way to go. I’m thinking my teen years should be a comic book.

I want to be Betty MacDonald!

How did it all begin?  It was a cold winter day, possibly in the single digits, when my friend and I hitchhiked to the junior high to visit her favorite former English teacher.  We sat on top of the radiator and kicked our boots while my friend’s charismatic teacher gathered her papers together, promising to take us out for cocoa. In the back of the classroom, a polyester-pantsuit-clad teacher lurked, in stark contrast to the rest of us: we wore  bell-bottoms, blue work shirts (possibly embroidered with roses),  and sturdy hiking boots, while she had the look of a dowager who had not discovered natural fabric.  She tagged along to the cafe with us, and stared across the table at me with eyes googling out of an acne-scarred face.

Usually I love book talk, but not about books I haven’t read, books which I have no intention of reading.  Did I like poetry, she asked.  Um, I liked  Richard Brautigan and Sylvia Plath, I muttered.   You must read Anne Sexton, she insisted.  She took a book out of her purse.  Oh, thank you, I said politely, and put it in my knapsack.  And, of course, as one does, I forgot about it.  And that night I got a hysterical phone call from her.  She said,  You hate me now, don’t you?  Now you’ve read my notes and know I’m gay.  Oh, I didn’t see them, I said politely.

I had no intention of reading her book.

I wanted to get back to Hermann Hesse,  Doris Lessing,  Jimi Hendrix, M.C. Escher, Easy Rider, Ingmar Bergman, Baskin & Robbin…

Time passed…

She kept calling me…

I politely had coffee with her…

Eventually, you know…

And then…   Boredom.  Isolation.  Trapped.

I wonder if that’s why I like trapped housewife novels.

Mind you, I was now living in a comic book called “Trophy Girl.”  After school, we made the rounds of her acquaintances. She liked to show me off.  Sometimes we would drop in at the house of the super-smart feminists who never invited her over and clearly disapproved of her relationship with an underage concubine.  It seemed politically incorrect, even rude, to admit how bored I was.  Like it or not, this was my world–for a short time.

I longed for the hilarious company of my own friends, who laughed at Tiger Beat magazine, sang along to the Grateful Dead, joked about boys, baked cookies, hitchhiked to rock concerts, watched Masterpiece Theater, and had a thing about Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia (which was constantly being shown at the second-run theater) .  We might not have been super-smart feminists–it never came up!–but I missed them.

She drove a car everywhere.  She listened to Melanie.  She didn’t watch Masterpiece Theater!

It was unspeakable.

At that age you like to be on the go.

I was living–gasp!–with a (sort of) grown-up.

After seeing my friends, I had to returen to the grainy dull black-and-white Peter Bogdanovich film of the “relationship.”  Relationship! Now there’s a word for you!  It wasn’t a courtship, it wasn’t a friendship, it wasn’t a flagship, it wasn’t a lordship, it wasn’t a fellowship–it was  a RELATION-ship!  How very, very, very, very dull.  I have never spoken of boyfriends and husbands in terms of a “relationship.”

I will not dwell on her sexual tastes.  I will tell you she wanted to pee on me in bed, and claimed that her former underage lover had enjoyed such peefests. “Gross!  No!”  One minute you’re dreaming of romance with Mr. Rochester, the next…

Dear reader, I left. Thank goodness!   But where is the narrative here? Everything dissolves into  grainy black-and-white film.   Narrative might exorcise it…  but a comic book would be best.

If only I could draw…

4 thoughts on “Betty MacDonald & Co.: Write Your Memoir for Laughs!”

  1. Wonderful. You do have the gift for an hilarious memoir, so more! more!
    I’ve always been a fan of Betty MacDonald, think I’ve read all her books (Onions in the Stew is my favorite) and have it VERY high on my list to visit her island farm home, which is now a B & B. As soon as we can fly again…

    1. Thank you. Oh my God, I can’t wait till we can fly! Isn’t it humiliating that we can’t go to other countries. Now that I know about farm home is there, I’m adding it to my list of places. And I’m going right now to find my copy of Onions in the Stew…

  2. I love Betty MacDonald’s books, too. Have you read any of Alice Thomas Ellis’s books, like Home Life. They’re both funny and hair-raising.

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