MacDonald is rarely remembered for her wry tone. When she’s remembered at all, she is preceded not by her own reputation, but that of the big-screen version of The Egg and I, starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray, which is pretty nearly unwatchable. In the film, Ma and Pa Kettle—neighbors who are fondly, if broadly, drawn in the book—have been turned into tobacco-spitting, raccoon-roasting caricatures. And the public loved them. On the movie poster, the faces of these two crackers loom huge; Colbert and MacMurray cower tinily in the corner. Ma and Pa Kettle proved so popular that nine more films were made about them and their fictional fifteen children, and Betty MacDonald lost all hope of being taken seriously as a writer.
Many years after all of this, I was having dinner with a British writer who had undertaken to write about the Northwest. “You have to be careful about using too much humor, otherwise you end up sounding like Betty MacDonald: housewife humor,” he said, finishing in scathing (if posh) tones. MacDonald has been trapped in this role of domestic lightweight. But her writing, with its quiet irreverence, has more in common with, say, Calvin Trillin or Laurie Colwin, than it does with a mid-century housewife humorist like Erma Bombeck. (Though, really, what’s so bad about Erma Bombeck?)
What MacDonald models in her writing is actually very freeing—self-deprecation as a kind of passport to the ordinary. With it, you can take your reader into the most mundane details of your life, and they will often go.
I teach adult writing students. When we work on memoir, they want to write pieces about what they’ve achieved. About their good marriages. About their sterling qualities. “Nobody wants to hear about that except your mother!” I tell them. Which is never very popular. Even so, I try to explain the Betty MacDonald principle to them: what people want to see in the memoir are reflections of their own failures and smallnesses. If you can show readers that you have those same failures, those same smallnesses, and make them laugh about it, they will love you. Or at least like you. Or at least accept you as a fellow nobody.
These simple things would be enough for me: a story of Seattle; a tale told with self-deprecating humor. But what MacDonald achieves in Anybody Can Do Anything is something more than that: a finely observed journalistic record of her time.
The ridiculous set pieces, the fond portraits of her family, and what New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the “earthy tang” of her writing do not seem like indicators of a work of serious journalism. But MacDonald is getting down on paper what she sees happening all across Seattle, and ultimately providing us with a rough draft of history. The details of home and work life accrue, anecdotes pile up, and suddenly the reader has a real sense of daily existence in the West during the 1930s. This is a cheerful, unassuming way of documenting a socially and economically turbulent period. But it’s documentation nonetheless.
Take, for example, MacDonald’s account of one of her earliest jobs. This chapter encapsulates the uneasiness of the early part of the Depression, eerily suggestive of the economic tenterhooks we’ve been on since 2007. She’s been summarily fired from her first job as executive secretary to a miner, so the ever-resourceful Mary has found her a job at her own office, where she works for a lumber magnate. When Betty protests that she hasn’t any of the qualifications the lumberman is looking for in a secretary, Mary tells her not to fret. “‘You thought you couldn’t learn mining,’ Mary told me when she installed me as her assistant in the office across the street. ‘There’s nothing to lumber, it’s just a matter of being able to divide everything by twelve.’ ”