When I announced to some friends and coworkers that I was now in the chicken-raising business, I had pressed upon me Betty MacDonald's postwar classic, The Egg and I. This was one of those books I had seen in the library when I was a kid, but had avoided: the graphics on the cover and title reminded me of that Carol Channing show -- was it Carol Channing? -- with the sheep puppet named Lambchop. That self-satisfied, 50's-ish, cute cleverness put me off. I was a kid in the 70's and 80's, and the images of the 50's made my skin crawl. There was something decidedly creepy about that era's obsession with grooming and its hollow emphasis on the wholesome.
Anyway. I enjoyed the book quite a bit at first. Aside from my own technical interest in chickens and farming, MacDonald was a whiz at the over-the-top metaphor: about Mrs. Kettle, she remarks, "From this dainty pretty head cascaded a series of busts and stomachs which made her look like a cooky jar shaped like a woman. Her whole front was dirty and spotted and she wiped her hands continually on one or the other of her stomachs..." There's a good deal of this sly but good-natured ragging on her neighbors, and all very entertaining. But about 3/4 of the way through, there's a shocking chapter about how much she hates the dirty, alcoholic Indians. Whoa! Good-bye, good-natured ribbing! And at that point it occured to me that actually, the "sprightly," "breezy" attitude that MacDonald strikes thinly disguises a genuine misanthropy. She hates everyone and everything, but can't admit it. She feels she is the only reasonable and sane person in the book, and has no sense of humor about that at all.
The Egg and I was published in the latter half of the 40's, but it really is a 50's book, filled with disgust for the unconventional and the sloppy and unable to look at its own dark heart.