Bill Moeller Commentary: A Literary Lifeline for Sheltering in Place

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With all the violence around us these days, I think it worthwhile to take ourselves back to a simpler time, a time when we read books. 

I’ve said I intended to spend the winter coronavirus months rereading old books that I had once enjoyed. I have not been disappointed. I started with the three books written by Oscar Levant, a talented pianist and friend of George Gershwin and frequent guest on late night talk shows. I loved “A Smattering of Ignorance,” worked my way through the narcissistic “The Memoirs of an Amnesiac” and closed “The Importance of Being Oscar” after about 30 pages. 

Oh well, you can’t win ‘em all.

Then I picked up “Good Night, Sweet Prince,” a tribute to the life of the great Shakespearean actor John Barrymore written by one of the greatest news hounds of the 1930s, Gene Fowler. This was followed by a book about Fowler written by his friend H. Allen Smith, followed by Fowler’s own autobiography “A Solo in Tom Toms.” All three books kept me up late nights without having to turn on TV, and they might offer those of you younger than me a glimpse of the world of newspapers long ago.

We now come to the book I really wanted  to tell you about, “The Egg and I” written by Betty MacDonald and published back in 1945! Was it popular? Well, the copy I have is listed as the 28th printing! The book soon became a movie starring Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray and was also responsible for several more movies based on other characters in the book, with Marjorie Main and Percy Killbride playing the parts of Ma and Pa Kettle. People who claimed that those two rather shiftless characters were based on themselves sued MacDonald but lost the suit. 

The book tells of how she and her husband — and later their baby daughter — lived on an egg farm on the Olympic Peninsula, not far from the current seaside towns of Chimacum and Hadlock, which are just south of Port Townsend. I understand there’s still a road nearby which is called “Egg and I Road” to this day. There was no electricity, no running water and only an old stove in what appeared to be a kitchen. There was, however, an outhouse. They eventually sold the property and the couple divorced. Years later, when telling her sisters about life under those conditions, they laughed so hard they convinced her to write about it, and that was enough to start a great career. She married again and as near as I can deduce lived either on Vashon Island or perhaps the small connecting (at low tide) Maury Island.

Going back in time again, there were hints that she spent some time at the chicken ranch creating some paintings because there’s a brief reference to them in the book. And, during the 30s, she was certainly acquainted with members of The Northwest School of Art because, when she became ill, the young artist I wrote about recently — Bill Cumming — drove her to the hospital where she spent nearly a year being treated for tuberculosis. That resulted in another book, “The Plague and I,” which — to my mind — is more a complaint about the way she was treated than a quirky narration about the experience.

Besides “The Egg and I” she’s known for writing the delightful series of children’s books about Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, that later became a series of TV shows created by actress Shelly Duval and starring Jean Stapleton, whom you might remember more as Edith Bunker on “All in the Family.” 

Betty MacDonald was born in 1907 and died on Feb. 7, 1958. Oh, yes, and there are copies of nearly all her books available through the Timberland Regional Library system.

Today’s reminder of aging comes from Wanda Smith who said, “You know you’re getting older when you see candy bars you paid a nickel for now costing over a dollar.”

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Bill Moeller is a former entertainer, mayor, bookstore owner, city council member, paratrooper and pilot living in Centralia. He can be reached at bookmaven321@comcast.net.

 

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