Author: Betty MacDonald
Narrator: Heather Henderson
Length: 8 hours 48 minutes
Publisher: Post Hypnotic Press⎮2016
Genre: Humor, Memoir
The Plague and I recounts MacDonald's experiences in a Seattle sanitarium, where the author spent almost a year (1938-39) battling tuberculosis. The White Plague was no laughing matter, but MacDonald nonetheless makes a sprightly tale of her brush with something deadly.
Anybody Can Do Anything is a high-spirited, hilarious celebration of how "the warmth and loyalty and laughter of a big family" brightened their weathering of the Great Depression.
In Onions in the Stew, MacDonald is in unbuttonedly frolicsome form as she describes how, with husband and daughters, she set to work making a life on a rough-and-tumble island in Puget Sound, a ferry ride from Seattle.
Betty Bard MacDonald (1907–1958), the best-selling author of The Egg and I and the classic Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle children’s books, burst onto the literary scene shortly after the end of World War II. Readers embraced her memoir of her years as a young bride operating a chicken ranch on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, and The Egg and I sold its first million copies in less than a year. The public was drawn to MacDonald’s vivacity, her offbeat humor, and her irreverent take on life. In 1947, the book was made into a movie starring Fred MacMurray and Claudette Colbert, and spawned a series of films featuring MacDonald’s Ma and Pa Kettle characters.
MacDonald followed up the success of The Egg and I with the creation of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, a magical woman who cures children of their bad habits, and with three additional memoirs: The Plague and I (chronicling her time in a tuberculosis sanitarium just outside Seattle), Anybody Can Do Anything (recounting her madcap attempts to find work during the Great Depression), and Onions in the Stew (about her life raising two teenage daughters on Vashon Island).
Author Paula Becker was granted full access to Betty MacDonald’s archives, including materials never before seen by any researcher. Looking for Betty MacDonald, the first official biography of this endearing Northwest storyteller, reveals the story behind the memoirs and the difference between the real Betty MacDonald and her literary persona.
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Heather Henderson is a voice actress and audiobook narrator with a 20-year career in literary and performing arts. Her narrations include the NYT bestseller (now also a feature film) Brain on Fire; and Sharon Creech’s The Boy on the Porch, which won her an Earphones award and was named one of the Best Children’s Audiobooks for 2013 by Audiofile Magazine. She earned her Doctor of Fine Arts degree at the Yale School of Drama, and is co-curator of AudioEloquence.com, a pronunciation research site for the audiobook industry. In 2015, Heather was a finalist for a Voice Arts Award (Outstanding Narration, Audiobook Classics), for her narration of Betty MacDonald’s The Egg and I.
HALL WAYS REVIEW: The Plague and I is the second memoir by Betty MacDonald, and listening to it really transports the reader back to the 30s, when times were simpler yet also more complicated in some ways. In this story, MacDonald recalls her childhood and then her tuberculosis diagnosis, and the majority of the story focuses on her treatment at a sanitarium called The Pines.
Readers, just like MacDonald herself, will find it amusing and ironic that in growing up, her father followed whatever health trends of the moment to keep his kids healthy including ten glasses of water a day, cold water baths, and brisk walks outside, even in sub-zero temperatures. Even as signs of the disease started to appear, there was mostly patronizing denial that MacDonald might be seriously ill. Once diagnosed, MacDonald admitted that it was a relief to find out she was "really sick instead of ambitionless and indolent."
Prior to being admitted to The Pines, MacDonald was told there was a long waiting list, that the cost was $35-$50 per week, and that she could expect it to take a year. With MacDonald earning $115 per month, and since she was the mother to young children, the doctor accepted her right away and told her not to worry about paying. Rather, he suggested that one day when she is healthy, she consider helping someone else pay for treatment. What a startling contrast to modern healthcare procedures.
To help keep the readers placed in the setting of the times, there are musical interludes between chapters that hearken back to the sounds of the 30s. With MacDonald’s period in The Pines being 1938-1939, there is language reflecting the racism of the times -- and sad reminders that similar attitudes persist in our society nearly eighty years later.
MacDonald's anecdotes, analogies, and figurative language are outstanding, and how I wish I had been able to capture more. But there's the downside of listening to an audio book while driving (anyone have a tip for that?) At The Pines, it seems the method to healing the patients was completely break them down to nothing and re-build them. As if having TB wasn't enough of a punishment, patients existed under the strictest of circumstances without any warmth (emotionally or physically). Even when a patient was capable, she wasn't permitted to do anything but eat and rest. MacDonald described the first three months at The Pines saying patients "existed as embryos carefully fed and cared for by the mother hospital. Alive but not living."
Life at The Pines was nearly military in its operation, and I had to remind myself that patients were there voluntarily and could leave at any time. But they didn't! They were constantly moved, given new roommates, and always expected to follow the rules, the rules, the RULES! One of many ironies is that The Pines staff wants patients to be obedient but often didn't explicitly state the rules. Readers feel MacDonald's frustrations as well as her small victories -- like when she finally is allowed to fill her own hot water bottle or urinate in a bathroom and not a bedpan.
While in The Pines, MacDonald encounters a wide variety of people and Heather Henderson provides excellent narration to bring them all distinctly to life via MacDonald's expert descriptive writing. Henderson nails MacDonald's wit and sarcasm and perfectly paces the storytelling.
In the end, it's no spoiler that MacDonald exits The Pines plump, healthy, and happy, but she finds there are new adjustments and transitions to be made. There are a few holes in the story, which I imagine would be filled had I read/listened to the first of her memoirs, The Egg and I, and I intend to do just that, as well as read/listen to the next two memoirs, Anybody Can Do Anything and Onions in the Stew.
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My favorite book by Betty MacDonald is one that she wrote in 1952, called Nancy and Plum. I was introduced to it as a fifth grader in 1970-something, when Mrs. Brewster, my teacher, read a chapter to the class each day after recess. Oh, the escape and adventure! I have my own cherished copy (cover on the left) but it has been re-released with a very snappy cover, shown on the right.