Jan 13, 2010

Anybody Can Do Anything

by Betty MacDonald

This book was a little slow at the start, but pretty soon I found myself laughing fit to burst every few pages. It's another memoir by Betty MacDonald, who having recently left the chicken farm she wrote about in The Egg and I, comes home to Seattle. It's the Depression Era, and jobs are very hard to come by, but as a single mother with two children, Betty must find work to help support her family (she lives with her mother and sisters). She feels herself woefully inadequate and lacking in office skills but her older sister Mary has connections everywhere and being indomitably optimistic, pushes Betty into one job after another. Most of them don't last long. Everything from being a secretary (dictation, shorthand, mimeograph machines) to selling advertising, working the sales floor, tinting photographs by hand, and organizing Christmas parties for large corporations. Eventually she gets steady work in the offices of the National Recovery Administration, and from goes on to find her feet as a writer.

In the meantime, most of Anybody Can Do Anything is full of awkward interviews, scrambling to acquire or prove non-existent job skills, fending off jealous co-workers and sidestepping desperate people on the sidewalk where "every day found a better class of people selling apples on street corners." At home she and her sisters pinch pennies, make their own party dresses out of hand-me-downs, eat by candlelight when the power is cut off, and put up with each others' endless blind dates. Their cheer and solidarity in the face of hard times is heartening. When there's no money to be had they stretch the meatloaf and stew to share with sundry friends and amuse themselves by sneaking into luncheons of private clubs (such as the Northwest Association of Agate Polishers), sitting in the back row of music student recitals and laughing themselves silly over the awkward performance, or even pretending to be rich and making real estate agents drive them all over town to tour big old empty mansions, where they argue over who will get what room and where their non-existent collection of furniture should be arranged.

As I grew up in a Seattle suburb, a lot of the atmosphere, locales and details of the city were familiar to me. I loved reading about the era when public transportation was all streetcars, Pike Place was just the local three-block "public market" and the ferry dock a long drive over dark hills from downtown. While the gloom of the Depression is always present- desperation for jobs, hearing of people committing suicide, constantly dodging debt collectors- the ability of Betty and her family to keep their heads up and find amusement in everyday circumstances makes this little memoir glow.

I got this book through Paperback Swap. I read it for the Random Reading Challenge.

Rating: 3/5 ........ 256 pages, 1950

More opinions at:
Penny Farthing
anyone else?


bermudaonion said...

This sounds like one I would like!

TheBlackSheep said...

Good review! Thanks!

Stefanie said...

This sounds like a sweet book, one that could have been really depressing but manages to be uplifting instead.

Jenny said...

Aw, this sounds great! I thought I'd added the other Betty McDonald book to my list, but apparently not - adding them both now!

Jeane said...

I have two others on my list now, as well- Onions in the Stew and The Plague and I. I'm hoping they're just as good!

Bybee said...

I so very much want to read all of MacDonald's books! Thanks for the review!!!