As used & rare booksellers, we pay attention not only to rare and expensive editions, but to those old books that are always in demand by readers–the titles we know will not be gathering dust on the shelves. Many authors, even some quite famous ones, fall out of favor over the years and become pretty much forgotten. But a few authors just never lose their popularity, and I often reflect on those writers who–although they might not have been literary giants–were able to pen stories that continue to capture readers’ hearts, long after the author has left this world. And really, what can be better than that?
One of these writers is Betty MacDonald (1908-1958), who wrote humorous autobiographical books, most famously The Egg and I, a tale based on her life as the wife of a chicken farmer in a rural area a few miles south of the seaside town of Port Townsend in Washington State. The Egg and I was her first book, which quickly became a bestseller. It was translated into twenty languages, and made into a charming movie in 1947 starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurry. The film introduced the characters “Ma and Pa Kettle;” and a series of nine more films featuring them soon followed.
MacDonald had a gift for turning lemons into lemonade. Her experiences with hard life on a chicken farm, her struggles with divorce, tuberculosis, and with trying to making a living during the Great Depression, were all transformed into humorous, somehow uplifting tales that delighted her readers.The Plague and I, her story of nine months spent at Firlands Sanitorium outside of Seattle for treatment of tuberculosis, was written in 1948. In 1950 Anybody Can Do Anything was published — an account of her difficulties trying to find work during the depression years. Onions in the Stew (1955) was about her life on Vashon Island with her second husband and daughters during World War II.
MacDonald also wrote best-selling books for children, one of which was illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm, 1954).
Few people realize that MacDonald’s sister, Mary Bard (Jensen), was also a published author. Her books included Forty Odd, Just Be Yourself, and The Doctor Wears Three Faces (made into a 1950 movie called “Mother Didn’t Tell Me,” starring Dorothy McGuire) and a series of children’s stories, the “Best Friends” series.
And the legacy continues: In 2007, Betty MacDonald’s daughter, Anne MacDonald Canham, published Happy Birthday Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, based on the stories and characters her mother had created.
Books by Betty MacDonald:
1945 The Egg and I
1947 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (illustrated by Hilary Knight)
1948 The Plague and I
1949 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Magic (illustrated by Hilary Knight)
1950 Anybody Can Do Anything
1952 Nancy and Plum
1954 Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle’s Farm (illustrated by Maurice Sendak)
1955 Onions in the Stew
1957 Hello, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (illustrated by Hilary Knight)
1959 Who, Me? The Autobiography of Betty MacDonald (collection of chapters from her four adult books, published posthumously)
All of these books are still popular today. We have sold 37 copies of her books ranging in price from $12 for a clean reading copy of The Egg and I to $125 for a signed first edition of The Plague and I in original jacket. None of these books linger around the shop very long, which tells me that the author still has a strong following.
Betty MacDonald died of cancer in 1958 at age 49 in Seattle, Washington.