I posted a while ago about a book that I love here. I asked whether, using the novelistic convention of dramatising exchanges and giving direct speech to characters, to convince the reader that what they are reading is real, goes beyond the bounds of true biographical writing?
Here is another book that I read time and again, also memoir but amazingly detailed. It’s Anybody can do Anything by Betty Macdonald.
I’d read her books The Egg and I (which, like the Curate’s egg, is good in parts) and The Plague and I (which I love), so when I saw Anybody in a second hand bookshop in 1981 for only 25p (36 cents at today’s exchange rate), I grabbed it. I re-read this funny and uplifting boot, with its brilliant character descriptions when I need picking up. But I leave it long enough between reading that I can’t remember the text word for word. When I do read it, I feel a thrill of recognition, like meeting an old friend.
Published in 1945, it’s a memoir of life in Seattle during the Depression, in the early to mid nineteen thirties. Betty leaves an unhappy marriage and, with her two small daughters, goes back to live with her quirky, warm, and supportive family of four sisters and a brother headed by Mother, who “with one folding chair and a plumber’s candle, could make the North Pole homey.” Betty says ‘“It’s a wonderful thing to know that you can come home any time from anywhere and just open the door and belong.”’ The title comes from the positive attitude of Betty’s sister, Mary, who spends her time finding jobs for her sisters (especially Betty), and Betty often winds up in uncomfortable, and sometimes dangerous, work situations.
The character descriptions are wonderful. The book is often contemplative, for example when the electricity is cut off because they can’t afford to pay the bill. However, it’s never miserable or preachy. The last chapter is titled “Anybody can write books”. Mary has met an old friend who is a talent scout for a publishing firm, looking for North-west authors. Mary says “Of course I do, my sister Betty…” She hasn’t actually written anything, but Mary sets up a meeting with the talent scout and Betty ends up writing her first book.
The final sentence, of Mary’s, is wonderful. Betty has just had her first book accepted and tells Mary about her “strange, enchanted feeling”. Mary says ‘“You just feel successful, but imagine how I feel. All of a sudden my big lies have started coming true!”’