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.’ ”
As she makes her way to work each morning, MacDonald is nervous but glad of the work: “Now I grew more and more conscious of the aimlessness and sadness of the people on the streets, of the Space for Rent signs, marking the sudden death of businesses, that had sprung up over the city like white crosses on the battlefield and I lifted myself up each morning timidly and with dread.”
Her employer’s business is clearly failing, but MacDonald feels she shouldn’t leave her boss, Mr. Chalmers, in the lurch. She intends to stay until the end. “And I did,” we read, “in spite of Mr. Chalmers’ telling me many times that the Depression was all my fault, the direct result of inferior people like me wearing silk stockings and thinking they were as good as people like him.” Again, this blame-the-victim language recalls some of the rhetoric of today’s subprime mortgage crisis. But despite the boss’s efforts to draw a sociological line in the sand, he too is laid low by the economic downturn, and the chapter comes to an abrupt end: “Lumber was over.”
The author and her family soon lose their phone service, their electricity, their heat. Being Betty MacDonald, she makes it all sound rather jolly. She tells of endless bowls of vegetable soup eaten by candlelight. And when she complains about being broke, she does it with typical good humor: “There is no getting around the fact that being poor takes getting used to. You have to adjust to the fact that it’s no longer a question of what you eat but if you eat.”
But sometimes the details tell the story that the tone masks. When the heat and the electricity have been turned off, the family relies upon old Christmas candles for light and firewood for heat: “When we ran out of fireplace wood, Mary unearthed a bucksaw and marched us all down to a city park two blocks away, where we took turns sawing up fallen logs.” Here, despite the characteristic pluck, you feel straits getting uncomfortably dire.
This isn’t an overlay of social commentary sitting awkwardly atop a narrative. Instead, such commentary is tightly knitted to MacDonald’s own experience. When she notices that “[e]very day found a little better class of people selling apples on street corners,” she’s not making an idle observation—she’s wondering if she’s next.