From the time I was nine or ten, I carried a spiral-bound Mead notebook with me at all times. I wanted to be a writer, felt I probably already was a writer, and feared I would never be a writer. I was constantly looking for clues that would tell me that someone like me, someone from Seattle, someone who was a girl, someone who was no one, might be able to write a book. A book that got published.
I was always on the lookout for a message, something that would tell me that this thing could be done. I realize now that what I was looking for was an influence. Influence is a message about what is possible, sent by book from one writer to another. Different writers are looking for different messages. As a child, the message I sought was simple: This place is worth writing about.
Just as I was a nobody, Seattle at that time was a non-place in literature. This was the 1970s. There were few nationally published authors from Seattle. Whenever I encountered any writing at all about the Northwest, I fell upon it gratefully. I was happy to read anything that had blackberries and Puget Sound and Douglas firs and the names of the streets downtown. I read Richard Brautigan stories; Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, though I didn’t even pretend to enjoy it; collections of columns by crabby old Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspapermen of the 1950s; poems by Carolyn Kizer. I read Tom Robbins and was embarrassed by the sex. I read Mary McCarthy’s first memoir, but she seemed to hate the place.
And, eventually, I read Betty MacDonald. She had been there all along, on my own shelves, in the form of her familiar, tattered Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle books. Then, browsing my mother’s shelves one summer afternoon, I came upon a grown-up book by MacDonald: Anybody Can Do Anything.
I had seen it before but assumed it belonged to the dreary crop of self-help books that had mushroomed on my mother’s shelves over the past few years. Bored enough, I picked it up—and found therein an enchanted world. Enchanted because it was exactly real. Anybody Can Do Anything is Betty MacDonald’s story of how she and her family weathered the Depression in an old wood-frame house (not unlike my family’s) in the University District (just a mile or two from where I lived). And though my historical circumstances were very different from hers, our shared geography was enough to make me feel that I was seeing my life reflected in her pages.
It’s funny to think of a time when Betty MacDonald’s books were new to me. Over the years I would come to know them the way I knew houses in my own neighborhood—with a casual intimacy. MacDonald began writing toward the end of her short life, in the 1940s, when she had found happiness with her second husband on their blackberry-ridden acreage on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. Her first book was The Egg and I, set in the 1920s. This chronicle of MacDonald’s life on an Olympic Peninsula chicken farm with her first husband would become her most famous book, make her a fortune, and form the basis of a wildly successful 1947 film. This, putting aside her books for children, was followed by The Plague and I, a surprisingly entertaining account of her stint in a tuberculosis sanitarium just north of Seattle. How she created a ripping yarn out of lying in bed for a year is one of life’s mysteries. Next came Anybody Can Do Anything, which I held in my hands. Finally she wrote Onions in the Stew, about life on Vashon Island, which came in 1955, just three years before she succumbed to cancer at the age of forty-nine.
But it was Anybody Can Do Anything, with its Seattle locale and its scrappy, cheerful message of survival, which spoke most directly to me.
As the book opens and the Depression begins, MacDonald has been living on the chicken farm in damp exile from her real life in Seattle. Married at twenty, she had followed her husband to the Olympic Peninsula so he could live his agrarian dream. Now she has reached her breaking point with the rain, the chickens, the monomaniacal husband, the whole affair. “Finally in March, 1931, after four years of this,” she recounts, “I wrote to my family and told them that I hated chickens, I was lonely and I seemed to have married the wrong man.” She snatches up her little daughters and makes her long, rainy, difficult way back to the city by foot, bus, and ferry.