Jan 22, 2021

Onions in the Stew

by Betty Macdonald
     You know a book is going to be good when you're already laughing aloud on page four. Very lively and funny, this. It's about when Betty Macdonald lived on Vashon Island (across the sound from Seattle) with two daughters and her second husband. Time period is the late forties. Some things like doing the cooking and housework for a family with reluctant pre-teenagers, are awfully familiar and relatable. There are awkward houseguests and kids' friends coming and going, changing fashions you can't make sense of, hectic rushes to get out the door for school or work on time (in this case compounding by the narrow margin of trying to catch the ferryboat) and lazy weekend mornings. Babysitting for the neighbors, kids navigating their first jobs, fibbing about trouble in school . . . I'd feel like I was reading about a family I might have known growing up, or my own. Then there's details about using a phone line shared with fourteen other households, frequent power outages, using a washing machine that's a huge tub with a wringer (filled by hand), war shortages and news from overseas, Japanese neighbors that are never mentioned again after being "sent to internment camp", and an incredibly casual attitude towards smoking that soundly reminded me this wasn't of my time. And of course the styles. It mentions several times plans in the making for a floating bridge from Vashon to Seattle, which apparently this family looked forward to, as the ferry could be unreliable. Turns out it never happened as enough Vashon residents protested the bridge plans, not wanting their island to become built up and "commercialized".

This book charmed me as The Egg and I did, because it's set in a locale I know well, having grown up in the Seattle area. It's a lot more like Macdonald's other book Anybody Can Do Anything in tone. I kept alternately picturing the beach cabin near Copalis that my family spent holidays in when I was a kid, and my great-aunt's place on the shores of Lake Washington, while reading this book. The rain and slippery trails on bluffs thick with huckleberries and oregon grape. The rocky shoreline and beaches where they dug clams  (a few recipes are included, which sound scrumptious). Beachcombing forays and attempts to garden on the hillside around their house. The antics of their dog, the constant quarrels of their children, and yet how calmly things fall together in the end. It was familiar and curiously unique at the same time. Fun.

I also have her book The Plauge and I, which fits between Anybody Can Do Anything and this one chronologically, but I skipped and read them out of order. Because when my nine-year-old year old saw The Plauge and I on the shelf she asked me, sounding quite appalled, if it was about corona, or maybe the black plague? (which we've discussed a few times). No, it's about when the author had tuberculosis. Somehow that put me off reading it right now though.
Rating: 3/5               242 pages, 1954

More opinions: Blue-Hearted Bookworm
anybody else?


  1. I did a double-take at the author's name as that's my mother's maiden name, spelt like that too. How odd! The book sounds wonderful.

    1. That's really curious! And she was pretty famous in her day, too- her more popular book The Egg and I became a tv show and a movie.


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