|Jul/Aug 2004 Book Reviews|
When Betty MacDonald authored Mrs. Piggle Wiggle in 1947 she created one of the most eccentric characters in children's literature. The series of four books have remained popular and in-print since their initial publication and are an interesting alternative to the silliness of Amelia Bedelia or the intimidating perfection of Mary Poppins. She is a completely original and humorous character with more than her fair share of common sense. More than anything though, Mrs. Piggle Wiggle is a slightly exaggerated form of Betty MacDonald herself.
I was in the third or fourth grade when I found the Piggle Wiggle books in my elementary school library. I checked those four books out again and again and again, constantly lured back by the insanity of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle's cures. The basic premise of the stories is quite simple: parents become frustrated with their children who suffer from such chronic maladies as lying, forgetting about pets, constantly interrupting, bad table manners, refusing to clean their rooms, refusing to take baths, refusing to go to school, etc. The parents go to Mrs. Piggle Wiggle desperate for cures and she dispenses a variety of magic potions and powders that prove to be miraculous. The child loses his bad habits, the parents are overjoyed and everyone lives happily ever after. But there's something else going on here as well, something that appeals more to children than the funny cures or unconventional characters. The best part of the Piggle Wiggle books is the parents; they don't know what they are doing.
In a very subtle way, MacDonald shows that Mom and Dad often are the cause of childish misbehavior, (through spoiling, confusion or ignorance), and most definitely do not always have all the answers. She paints family portraits that show Dad to be either oblivious or furious and Mom to be perpetually at her wit's end. The children are out of control and no one seems to know why, let alone what to do about it. In the case of the bad table manners the mother watches her son eat like an animal and wonders, "however did he get this way," while the girl who heedlessly destroys everything in her house is considered to be suffering the after affects of a chicken pox infection from several years before. When did young Fetlock become such a liar or little Jodi lose all interest in attending school? How and why, the parents ask each other, how and why? The reader gets to shake her head while laughing just as hard at the foolish parents as she is at the crazy kids. And the cures, well how do you not love a cure that involves sprinkling radish seeds on a mud-caked boy while he sleeps, resulting in full size plants sprouting out all over his body the next day?! It's pure genius, and purely Betty MacDonald.
The subversive power of Mrs. Piggle Wiggle aside, Betty was dedicated to more than just striking a blow for responsible parenting. Her first book, The Egg and I, was actually a memoir, a hysterical report on her years running a chicken farm in a remote section of Washington State. She never wanted to be a farmer, but was a victim of the "I'll go where you go-do what you do-be what you are and I'll be happy philosophy," which she learned from her mother. Since the chicken farm adventure ended in divorce four years later, clearly Betty was not in the same type of marriage as her parents. Luckily for us she was willing to write about her failure for our reading enjoyment.
In her list of things she hated about the farm, Betty wrote: "the outhouse at night where I had a horrible choice of either sitting in the dark and not knowing what was crawling on me or bringing a lantern and attracting moths, mosquitoes, night hawks and bats." There was a lot more to make the experience difficult, including chronic shortages of supplies, continuous rain (and thus leaking in their dilapidated farmhouse) and odd neighbors named Mr. and Mrs. Kettle whose characterizations later became the basis for an entire string of Ma and Pa Kettle movies. The worst though was her husband Bob, who genuinely loved chicken farming. "He never seemed lonely," writes Betty, "he enjoyed the work, he didn't make stupid blunders and then, of course, he wasn't pregnant." That last bit probably explains a lot, but this was the 1930s and having a baby was just part of the job when you lived in the wilderness and plucked chickens for a living. It wasn't enough for Betty though and she eventually wrote her family a sad desperate letter that resulted in an immediate response, and her trip off the farm. We never hear from Bob again, but Betty and the children move on to her next book, Anybody Can Do Anything, my personal favorite.
Anybody Can Do Anything is about Betty's many attempts to find a job in Seattle during the Depression. It is also a great love letter to her sister Mary, who insists, "Anybody can do office work," and sends her completely unprepared sister off on job after job in a variety of industries that she knows nothing about. But Betty does keep working and also learns along the way to fudge her experience in the best possible manner so that she keeps working in positions all over the city. This allows her to store up countless stories of office mishaps that are shared here with the same wit and humor that grace all of her books. It is just flat out funny how Betty keeps finding herself in one situation after another that she is wholly unprepared for. She also goes out on a lot of dates, because as Mary says, "nobody's too dull or too short for my sister!" In due course Betty finds true love and happiness and also meets one of Mary's friends in the publishing business who is desperate for true tales of the Pacific Northwest. This meeting results in The Egg and I, and Betty is on her way to a true career and ultimately a great deal of money. It couldn't have happened to a nicer person.
In addition to all of her lighthearted writings, there is also a landmark book published in 1948, The Plague and I, about Betty's struggle with tuberculosis. Her humor is still evident, even here, but this book is more of a lighthearted One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest than anything else. When she was only 29 years old, divorced and living with her family, Betty was diagnosed with tb and sent to live in a sanatorium for a year. Her prescription was total bed rest that is difficult for anyone to contemplate and particularly hard for someone who was so accustomed to busyness and activity. The book is entertaining for many reasons, but more than that it is significant for the portrait it provides of a place and time that has been largely overlooked by history. Average people were once sent for long periods of time to just sit and rest and wait in sanatoriums all over the world. They suffered from an immense amount of frustration over how little they were told about their illness and the childlike manner in which they were treated. Betty's ability to persevere through this experience is truly admirable, even better though is the grand style in which she wrote about it, making a solid record of a rather obscure historical moment.
Although the Piggle Wiggle books have always been readily available it is only The Egg and I that has remained in print from Betty's adult titles. This is very unfortunate. It seems she has been dismissed as a domestic author, someone whose life was relevant fifty years ago, but perhaps is not so important today. It is just these types of books though which provide vital history to an aspect of American life that is sadly unreported. Betty was a wife and mother and divorcee and invalid and "overnight" publishing success during one of the most difficult and traumatic periods in U.S. history. She was a normal person with an unusual capacity to share her life with other people. She was a great writer who stood in the kitchen and the barn and the secretarial pool when no one else was watching and she wrote down what she saw and how she felt and what she learned. If we want to know what it was like back then, this is the place to find out. Lucky for us, she makes the learning easy.
And then there is Mrs. Piggle Wiggle. Just like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Piggle Wiggle books were the result of bedtime stories the author told her children. Betty MacDonald created her character both to entertain her two daughters and also to teach them a lesson or two. She succeeded brilliantly on both fronts. The challenge for the reader is to look beyond Betty's child lit success however and seek out the impressive nonfiction she also produced. There is a lot to learn here from her about being a good parent and successful adult, if you take the time to listen to everything she has to say.