The Egg and I, first published in 1945, is a humorous memoir by American author Betty MacDonald about her adventures and travails as a young wife on a chicken farm on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state. The book is based on the author's experiences as a newlywed in trying to acclimate and operate a small chicken farm with her first husband Robert Heskett from 1927 to 1931 near Chimacum, Washington. On visits with her family in Seattle, she told stories of their tribulations, which greatly amused them. In the 1940s, MacDonald's sisters strongly encouraged her to write a book about these experiences. The Egg and I was MacDonald's first attempt at writing a book.
MacDonald begins her book by reviewing childhood, her parents and siblings. The Bards (her maiden name) are portrayed as middle class family that moves frequently to support Darcy Bard's job as an engineer in the mining industry. Along the way, young Betty Bard is taught by her mother that to have a happy home life, a wife must support her husband in his chosen career. This philosophy comes into play when the author marries a friend of her brother ("Bob") who soon admits that it is his dream is to leave his current office job and start a chicken ranch. Knowing nothing about ranching, but eager to support her husband, the author encourages the dream. She is, however, unprepared for the primitive, and remote conditions that exist at the farm that he purchases.
From this "set up" the book turns to anecdotal stories that rely upon the proverbial "fish out of water" tales that pit MacDonald against her situation and her surroundings. Chapters rely upon an overall theme: the gray weather of November and the onset of winter serves a metaphor for her shrinking contact with the outside world. In another chapter the author details her struggle to keep up with the need for water, which needs to be hand carried from a pond to the house until a tank is installed. Another theme that runs throughout the book is that the author's needs frequently take a back seat to those of the chicks and chickens that are the couple's livelihood. At one point a generic guest eating breakfest at their home opines that the author and her husband have an enviable life full of fresh air and beautiful scenery, which is then followed by MacDonald pointing out that while the guest had lounged in bed that morning, she and her husband had been up before sunrise working for several hours, and then again the couple had stayed up long into the night after the guest had gone to bed.
Area residents include a neighbor family that runs a farm so neat and effortlessly that it causes the author to doubt her adequacy; another family (the Kettles) represents the opposite side of the spectrum where chaos rules the day.
First published by the J. B. Lippincott Company on October 3, 1945, The Egg and I received laudatory reviews and soon appeared on the best-seller list. The book was a blockbuster success as a novel, being reprinted on a nearly monthly basis for the next two years.
In April 1946 Universal-International announced the purchase of the film rights for The Egg and I for a downpayment of $100,000 plus a percentage of profits. Contracts were signed with Claudette Colbert and Fred MacMurray for the lead roles with production scheduled for the fall of 1946. The movie was the inspiration for a series of ten Ma and Pa Kettle movies, which in many way eclipsed the Colbert/MacMurray vehicle in popular culture, starring Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride which began in 1949.
A short-lived TV series, starring Patricia Kirkland, with Nancy Carroll as her mother (Carroll was Kirkland's real mother). The series was television's first comedy serial, which aired on CBS from September 3, 1951 to August 1, 1952. The length of each episode was 15 minutes.
The road leading west from Beaver Valley Road (State Route 19) to the former site of MacDonald's farm is now named Egg and I Road. In popular culture, "The Egg and I" is also the name of a song performed by The Seatbelts for the anime Cowboy Bebop and a dark-humor blog-comic by Jack Butler.
Following the success of the book and film, lawsuits were filed by members of the Chimacum community. They claimed that characters in The Egg and I had been based on them, and that they had been identified in their community as the real-life versions of those characters, subjecting them to ridicule and humiliation. The family of Albert and Susanna Bishop claimed they had been negatively portrayed as the Kettles. Their oldest son Edward and his wife Ilah Bishop filed the first lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
The second lawsuit was filed against MacDonald, publisher J. B. Lippincott Company, and The Bon Marché (a Seattle department store which had promoted and distributed the book) for total damages of $975,000, as sought by nine other members of the Bishop family ($100,000 each) and Raymond H. Johnson ($75,000), who claimed he had been portrayed as the Indian "Crowbar." The case was heard before a jury in Judge William J. Willkins' (who was also one of the presiding Judges at the Nuremberg Trials) courtroom in King County Superior Court beginning February 6, 1951. MacDonald testified that the characters in her book were composite sketches of various people she had met. The defense produced evidence that the Bishop family had actually been trying to profit from the fame the book and movie had brought them, including testimony that son Walter Bishop had had his father Albert appear onstage at his Belfair, Washington, dance hall with chickens under his arm, introducing him as "Pa Kettle." On February 10, 1951, the jury decided in favor of the defendants.
In 1996, Betty MacDonald's family was interviewed by journalist Wolfgang Hampel, author of The Kettles' Million Dollar Egg. Betty's youngest sister Alison Bard knew the Bishop family very well and related many stories about them.
While MacDonald's work was popular with critics at its release, modern reappraisals of the book have been critical of the book's treatment of native Americans. Her treatment of the rural working class "spawned a perception of Washington as a land of eccentric country bumpkins like Ma and Pa Kettle."
Those that defend MacDonald's overall catalog of work counter that these findings are measured against modern cultural standards, and not in the context of American Pop Culture of the 1940s when such stereotyping was more widely accepted.