The Egg and I
Dust jacket from 1946 edition
|Publisher||J. B. Lippincott|
|LC Class||AGR 45-336|
The Egg and I, first published in 1945, is a humorous memoir by American author Betty MacDonald about her adventures and travels as a young wife on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The book is based on the author's experiences as a newlywed in trying to acclimate and operate a small chicken farm with her first husband Robert Heskett from 1927 to 1931 near Chimacum, Washington. On visits with her family in Seattle, she told stories of their tribulations, which greatly amused them. In the 1940s, MacDonald's sisters strongly encouraged her to write a book about these experiences. The Egg and I was MacDonald's first attempt at writing a book.
MacDonald begins her book with a summary description of her childhood and family. Her father was an engineer, and moved frequently with his family throughout the West. Her mother's theory that a wife must support her husband in his career comes into play when the author marries a friend of her brother ("Bob") who soon admits that his dream is to leave his current office job and start a chicken ranch. Knowing nothing about ranching, but eager to support her husband, the author encourages the dream but is unprepared for the primitive conditions that exist on the ranch he purchases.
From this "set up" the book turns to anecdotal stories that rely upon the proverbial "fish out of water" tales that pit MacDonald against her situation and her surroundings, such as the struggle to keep up with the need for water, which needs to be hand carried from a pond to the house until a tank is installed or keeping a fire going in "Stove" or the constant care that chicks need. At one point a guest expresses envy of MacDonald and her husband, as she thinks they live a life full of fresh air and beautiful scenery, which is then followed by MacDonald pointing out that while the guest had lounged in bed that morning, she and her husband had been up before sunrise working for several hours, and then again the couple had stayed up long into the night after the guest had gone to bed.
First published by the J. B. Lippincott Company on October 3, 1945, The Egg and I received laudatory reviews and soon appeared on the best-seller list. The book was a blockbuster success as a novel, being reprinted on a nearly monthly basis for the next two years.
In April 1946 Universal-International announced the purchase of the film rights for The Egg and I for $100,000, plus a percentage of profits. Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray were cast in the lead roles, with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride cast in the roles of Ma and Pa Kettle. The film, loosely based on the book, was released in 1947. Main received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress, and the film inspired eight subsequent Ma and Pa Kettle features.
A 15-minute daytime TV series based on the book aired on CBS from September 3, 1951 to August 1, 1952. The program starred Patricia Kirkland and Nancy Carroll.
Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian "Crowbar." The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins' (who was also one of the presiding Judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as "Pa Kettle." On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.
While MacDonald's work was popular with critics at its release, modern reappraisals of the book have been critical of the book's treatment of Native Americans. Her treatment of the rural working class "spawned a perception of Washington as a land of eccentric country bumpkins like Ma and Pa Kettle."
Those who defend MacDonald's overall catalog of work counter that these findings are measured against modern cultural standards, and not in the context of American pop culture of the 1940s, when such stereotyping was more widely accepted.
In popular culture
The road leading west from Beaver Valley Road (State Route 19) to the former site of MacDonald's farm is now named "Egg and I Road".
- The New York Times, April 19, 1946, p. 26. "'EGG AND I' BOUGHT FOR COLBERT FILM; International Pays $100,000 Down to Betty MacDonald — Three Openings Today of Local Origin". (Accessed 20 March 2007, via ProQuest, New York Times (1857–Current File), Document ID 84635734)
- The New York Times, February 22, 1951, p. 40. "'Egg and I' Author Wins Suit", (Accessed 20 March 2007, via ProQuest, New York Times (1857–Current File), Document ID 87109916)
- "MacDonald, Betty (1908–1958)". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2013-12-23.
- William J. Wilkins and Eleanor Elford Cameron (1981). The Sword and the Gavel: An Autobiography. Seattle: The Writing Works. p. 286–299.
- "Betty MacDonald and Mary Bard: A Slide Show Tour of their King County Homes". HistoryLink.org: The Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History. Slide Show No. 7035.