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MacDonald laughed at life’s troubles

“Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I” by Paula Becker

It isn’t often that book titles are adopted as road names, but let’s face it: Betty MacDonald’s best-selling book, “The Egg and I” was one of the more inspired titles to come out of the 20th century. So it makes sense that the Jefferson County road heading west from State Route 19 to the site of the author’s one-time chicken ranch (and inspiration for “The Egg and I”) was eventually renamed in honor of the book.

You’ll learn more about the real story behind MacDonald’s liberally reimagined memoir, as well as many other episodes from MacDonald’s busy life and career, in “Looking for Betty MacDonald: The Egg, the Plague, Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, and I.”

This is the first authoritative biography on MacDonald’s life, and it was written by Paula Becker, a historian for HistoryLink, the online encyclopedia of Washington State history.

Before this book, Becker had co-written with Alan Stein two histories of Seattle’s world’s fairs, “Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition: Washington’s First World’s Fair” and “The Future Remembered: The 1962 Seattle World’s Fair and Its Legacy.” Lively and gracefully written, those coffee-table books were created with the object of celebrating major anniversaries.

This book on Betty Bard MacDonald is something different. It is a passion project, as Becker makes clear in a charming if somewhat overlong introduction.

As a child, Becker had been captivated by a four-book series featuring Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a pirate’s widow who lived in an upside-down house and cured children of their bad habits with remedies from her magical trunk. Betty MacDonald was the author.

When Becker moved to Seattle as an adult, she realized that she was living in the city where MacDonald had lived and worked 50 years earlier. She did a little checking and discovered that the author of the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” and “Nancy and Plum” series had also penned a series of four autobiographies intended for adult audiences. They were laced with wry humor, occasional profanity and mishap exaggerated for comic effect.

“The Egg and I” loosely chronicled her life as an unhappy bride on an isolated farm on the Olympic Peninsula.

“The Plague and I” caught up with MacDonald as a young, single mother of two, and followed her from a tuberculosis diagnosis to nine months of mandated bed rest at a sanatorium north of Seattle.

In “Anybody Can Do Anything,” MacDonald mirrored the overall story of the Great Depression through her own efforts to patch together enough work to support her family.

And “Onions in the Stew” recounted the years she spent on Vashon Island, as she and her second husband parented her two girls through their teens.

Becker’s research into the stories behind these stories was exhaustive, yet her careful scholarship and substantially footnoted text aren’t ponderous. Instead, the pages zing with unexpected detail and nuggets of lacerating wit. Betty and her family were decidedly offbeat, unapologetically irreverent, and determinedly adherent to the blues-defying motto “Don’t be a saddo.”

If you’re “Looking for Betty MacDonald,” you need look no further.

The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at bkmonger@nwlink.com

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