I would’ve been intrigued by Betty MacDonald’s The Plague and I on the basis of its title alone (thanks to our ongoing “plague”), but what convinced me to read it is a Backlisted episode. I love the way Mitchinson and Miller talk about books and I love their guests and I tend to run out and get whatever they’re reading, or read, with the exception of their latest episode; no matter how much I love Sarah Churchwell, I cannot read Thomas Pynchon ever again #traumatizedbyGravity’sRainbow.
I enjoyed MacDonald’s The Plague and I; it gave me many chuckles, but I wish it could have been revelatory, more than what it was, more given the promise of its magnificent writing. The fun of The Plague and I was in MacDonald’s voice: her satiric observations of human personalities and self-deprecating persona. There’s not much to “what happened?” in The Plague and I: MacDonald received a tuberculosis diagnosis and subsequently spent nine months in a sanatorium, the arena wherein she exercised her inimitable humour.
MacDonald was a magnificent writer. Her deft hand with characterization, scene-setting, and metaphors which surprise and delight, kept me turning pages. Her voice was self-effacingly humourous and she was as likely to paint herself inept, mistaken, or naïve as she did others. Her humour poked gentle fun at human foibles, but was never cruel. For example, in the first chapter, before her diagnosis, she told us something of her childhood and family. Her description of her father’s penchant for making his children take A LOT of fresh air and exercise was a hoot; in this case, his fresh-air-and-exercise de jour was hiking and bird-watching:
On Sundays we took bird walks. Daddy bought a book on Western birds with colored pictures and, armed with this, his field glasses, a notebook, several dogs, and his quarrelling disinterested children, he would walk for hours along the Lake Washington Boulevard. “There is a flicker,” Daddy would say suddenly, looking through his field glasses into a densely wooded area. We would all stop short, bumping, jostling, and stamping on each other’s toes. After the shoving and slapping had subsided we took turns with the glasses, focusing them on the ground or on a distant leaf. We seldom saw anything, but we pretended we did because we moved along faster that way.
The endearingly gormless dad, surly, bored children, the “flicker”!!!…brilliant humorous characterization and scene.
I think the reason I didn’t totally embrace MacDonald’s memoir as sheer brilliance, though the writing came close, was because the humour became a shtick and the lack of introspection made the conceit repetitive. When, on a rare occasion, MacDonald was introspective, it added depth and made it even easier to warm to her plight. Here, the evening following her visit with the doctor who gave her the tuberculosis diagnosis:
There was a fire in the fireplace. There was fresh hot coffee. There were infinite love and abundant sympathy. There may have been too much sympathy because after a while I became almost overcome with my own bravery, selflessness, and power of mind over body. To think that for the whole past year I had been going my way, working, playing, and laughing, while all the time I was seriously, perhaps fatally, ill. I wallowed in self-pity. Instead of admitting to myself that it was a great relief to know what was wrong with me and that I was really sick instead of ambitionless and indolent, I dripped tears on Mother’s blue down quilt as I created doleful pictures of little Anne and Joan putting flowers on “Mommy’s” grave. I was a big, no-sense-of-humour saddo. I coughed all night long and enjoyed doing it.
It seems that the fear of being a “saddo” (which was her beloved grandmother’s greatest indictment against family members) stuck with MacDonald and made a paucity of wonderful passages such as the one above.
The humour, however, was splendid. How much better can humorous writing get than the following incisive, hilarious metaphor?: “The rest of what I was about to say went dribbling back down my throat for the nurse was looking at me with eyes that could have been taken out and used to replace diamond drills.” Or this account of a family visit?:
Just then Mother, Mary, and Jim, Mary’s husband, came in. Jim walked purposefully up to the bed and immediately handed me everything he had in the way of conversation. He said, “You look fine.” The rest of the two hours he spent looking longingly out the window or examining me from different angles, as if I were a building site.
Mary brought me a huge bunch of yellow chrysanthemums with chartreuse centers. Mother brought a bed lamp and a stand bag (Mary had an old friend and old patient of The Pines who had told her I would need these) and a box of hot fresh cookies. They were so curious about everything in the institution and I was so curious about everything at home that the two hours were up almost at once. Just before they left Jim said, “Very little is known about tuberculosis. How is the food here?” I said it was wonderful and he said, “Well, that’s something.”
Maybe no one else would find this scene funny, but I howled: Jim’s laconic awkwardness, the bathos of his response, both flatly reassuring and a tad momento-mori-ish, were priceless. Maybe I would have liked more substance to MacDonald’s memoir, but that’s not what she set out to write, so who am I to whinge when I had so much pleasure out of her book? As a book of humor, with its wonderful voice, I haven’t read anything like it. The Backlisted folks, whose mission is to give “new life to old books”, are right…again: MacDonald deserves to be better known and more widely read.
5 thoughts on “Commentary on Betty MacDonald’s THE PLAGUE AND I”
Lovely review! I’ll add this to the mountainous TBR O’ Doom.
I believe MacDonald still has an audience, but the entry point is usually her first book (The Egg and I), which is a comedic look her early married life on a chicken farm. (Hence the wording for the title of her second book)
Sadly, tuberculosis still is a scourge, especially in certain parts of the world. (I remember a yearly TB tine test being part of routine health check-ups while living in Hawaii (1950s-1970s)),
I’m glad MacDonald could turn her brush with an often fatal disease into comedy, but the disease itself is no laughing matter.
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Thank you!!! Her writing is amazing, I must say, and she could have made pretty much anything funny. A very talented lady, lost too soon…and not to TB. So sad.
The first school I worked in had a TB-scare and, given the pandemic, it has come back to me frequently and vividly.
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I’m so not a podcast person, but that really sounds like my cup of tea…
Do you read the Furrowed Middlebrow blog?
Oh, even non-podcast-people would enjoy Backlisted! I don’t, but I will!
And followed, and I have a few too, because they have the bestest covers!