There she and her girls are folded happily back into her large family’s bosom. Her mother’s “eight-room brown-shingled house in the University district was just a modest dwelling in a respectable neighborhood, near good schools and adequate for an ordinary family. To me that night, and always, that shabby house with its broad welcoming porch, dark woodwork, cluttered dining-room plate rail, large fragrant kitchen, easy book-filled firelit living room, four elastic bedrooms represents the ultimate in charm, warmth and luxury.”
The book describes life in that teeming, cozy household with her mother, her three sisters, her brother, and her two little girls, plus whoever else might be sleeping over in one of those elastic bedrooms. It also details the literally dozens of weird and none-too-wonderful jobs that MacDonald held throughout the Depression: hapless secretary to businessmen of every stripe, fur-coat model, photo retoucher, rabbit rancher, firewood stealer, Christmas tree decorator, baby sitter, receptionist to a gangster.
The author jumps from job to job, with whole industries blowing up behind her as she leaves, like Tom Cruise running from an exploding warehouse. She’s hustled along in the ever-shrinking job market by her sister Mary, who considers herself an “executive thinker.”
Mary has a job ready for Betty as soon as she gets off the bus from the egg farm, never mind that Betty is utterly unqualified. Mary won’t hear of such talk. She is quick to admonish her sister: “There are plenty of jobs but the trouble with most people, and I know because I’m always getting jobs for my friends, is that they stay home with the covers pulled up over their heads waiting for some employer to come creeping in looking for them.”
The truth of this statement is disproved throughout the book. There were certainly not plenty of jobs. The portrait of Depression-era Seattle that emerges is definitively—though quietly—desperate. But on my first read, I hardly clocked the despair. I just thrilled to the evocation of my home, captured in such throwaway phrases as, “There was nothing in sight but wet pavement and wet sky.” MacDonald describes places that still existed, that I myself knew—the I. Magnin’s at the corner of Sixth and Pine, the palatial movie theater named the Neptune. Here she is on the Pike Place Market:
The Public Market, about three blocks long, crowded and smelling deliciously of baking bread, roasting peanuts, coffee, fresh fish and bananas, blazed with the orange, reds, yellows and greens of fresh succulent fruits and vegetables. From the hundreds of farmer’s stalls that lined both sides of the street and extended clear through the block on the east side, Italians, Greeks, Norwegians, Finns, Danes, Japanese and Germans offered their wares. The Italians were the most voluble but the Japanese had the most beautiful vegetables.
Such descriptions caused a strange firing in my brain. I was accustomed to imagining locations from books; there was a deep pleasure in having that necessity for once removed. Even the food they ate was the food we ate. For special treats, MacDonald tells of buying Dungeness crabs and Olympia oysters, just as my family did.
I saw, illustrated perfectly, and in the cold light of nonfiction, the possibility that Seattle might be the setting for a book. I would not be struck so thoroughly by the possibility of a true Northwest literature until I started reading Raymond Carver in the mid-1980s.
My mother told me that Betty MacDonald had died in the 1950s, but that her niece lived in our very own neighborhood. I walked by the house, gazing at it with a true feeling of awe: the niece of an author lived therein! Of course I knew authors were real people. But Betty MacDonald was more than real; she was tangible. She was prima facie evidence that the materials I had at hand—those trees, that rain—were enough.
Other writers came and went; Betty MacDonald was among those who endured for me. This was because she was funny. No, that’s not quite right. Though I didn’t have the language for it when I first read her, Betty MacDonald was comic. As I became a writer myself, I studied her, trying to figure out just how she did it.