The Plague and I by Betty MacDonald
At home Thanksgiving had always been a delightful occasion even when we were being thankful for meatloaf shaped like a turkey. We thought about Thanksgiving, planned for Thanksgiving and talked of Thanksgiving for weeks beforehand, but the evening before the actual day was the best time of all. Then the house seethed with children and dogs, with friends and cooks, and with delightful smells of baking pies, turkey stuffing, and coffee. Every time the doorbell rang we put on another pot of coffee and washed the cups and by the time we went to bed we were so nervous and flighty that when accidentally bumped or brushed against, we buzzed and lit up like pinball machines. Thanksgiving morning usually found us all quite nasty and with too many things planned for the oven, but even the fighting was fun. Warm, family fun.
A VERY HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL MY READERS, WHETHER THEY ARE CELEBRATING IT TODAY OR NOT
commentary: Poor Betty, narrator and author of this largely true story, is remembering Thanksgiving with the family, because she has TB and is in a sanatorium where she has been prescribed bedrest. The treatment thought to help in those days sounds horrible and cruel in the extreme – and you have to wonder if it did any good at all. The patients had to have complete bedrest, in a freezing cold setting.
They weren’t allowed to talk, laugh, read, or write. Visits from the family were severely limited. Any excitement was strictly forbidden. If you broke the rules you were threatened with being sent home, so your bed could be given to someone who would be more co-operative.
The book, along with the other TB books I have read this year, Dark Circle by Linda Grant and Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, was a revelation - a sad, affecting revelation. (There is another entry on it here.)
Betty, above, does manage to enjoy Thanksgiving – she is allowed to see her mother for two hours, and her two daughters for ten minutes.
Everyone was thinking about home, the air was so thick with longing, so crowded with memories that it was difficult to breathe. Someone across the hall pushed aside the heavy curtain of remembering to draw a long shuddering breath. There was a sigh from the room next door.The hospital has tried:
Our trays were set with little baskets of candies and the nurses were pleasant…The Pines had certainly done their share in trying to make the holiday a success…I think it is not a spoiler to say that Betty will be home long before the next Thanksgiving, cured, and will go on to write her best-selling books.
The beautiful picture is the cover of a Thanksgiving edition of a magazine, and comes from the Library of Congress.
For a variety of other Thanskgiving entries, click on the label below.
Oh, my goodness, Moira, I haven't thought of this book in ages! I read it years ago, and was struck by the way it portrayed hospital life. I'm glad you reminded me of it.ReplyDelete
It is one of the most memorable books I read this year Margot - it's not perfect, and I didn't love it to bits, and it wasn't as funny for me as for some people. But the story it tell is so extraordinary, it is a historical document of an experience that is now gone with the wind...Delete
They are the most wonderful books. Three generations of my family have clutched their teenage-ridden hair and wailed "Please keep Imogen until she is thirty" (Onions in the Stew). I am trying to remember the clothes though- there were 5 jade green party dresses in Anybody Can Do Anything, as far as I remember. Much improvised clothes sharing in that book too. Thank you for reminding me, I must get them out again.ReplyDelete
In my case it's the dirt-showing, hard-to-clean floors in the house in the Egg and I. Words to the effect of 'if the floor had been covered in white velvet that would have been slightly, but only slightly, less practical.' It runs through my head whenever faced with something ridiculous of that nature, and actually cheers me up.Delete
When we lived in Seattle I actually went and looked for various places described in the books...
You are right, need to read more of her now...
I read it years ago too, in fact I'm pretty sure I read all of her books, but so long ago they've been lost in the mist of time.ReplyDelete
She was such a bestseller in her day, but now almost forgotten I think. Time to give her a boost I think - she has a lot to offer.Delete
When I think of Betty MacDonald, I think of Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle, who had such a powerful impact on my childhood. You've made me want to go upstairs, Moira, get the books out, read all the stories again, and write about them! Also, when I was in high school, I got a positive result on my TB test. It meant that I had to take medication for a year, and ever since then, I have to receive a chest x-ray every five years to prove that I'm not infecting the kids I teach. (Hell, they're the ones who give ME colds!) I get very testy about this, but I don't think I ever had it as bad as poor Betty!ReplyDelete
Happy Thanksgiving to all! I have a lot to be thankful for! :)
Oh my goodness Brad, poor you! But as you say, not as bad as if you were born earlier. We had those terrifying tests at school too. It is horrific that TB is coming back...Delete
We had a different children's book by her, Nancy and Plum, and - I had forgotten this till now - reading it with my daughter I realized how much children's books had changed over the years, in terms of jeopardy, behaviour of adults etc. I was inspired to write something about that topic which turned out to strike a chord and attracted a lot of attention. Well done Betty!
And, like you, I feel there is much to be thankful for, amid some... other things.
I have been meaning to tell you that I read and enjoyed Onions in the Stew in the summer - I found it on the shelves of a hotel on Lake Como! It had obviously been there for decades.ReplyDelete
When I first read The Plague and I about thirty years ago I was haunted by it. Thank God for modern medicine. TB was the main cause of death in young adults in the 19th century and killed more young women than death in childbirth (I discovered this when I was doing research on 19th century stepfamilies.) It was an absolute scourge.
Oh that's great! I really really want to read it now, so have just ordered a copy.Delete
I know what you mean about haunting, that's how I feel this year after reading so many books in sanatoria, and then looking back into the 19th century. It was horrendous, and as so many have pointed out - our image of a young woman palely sinking into death is quite wrong, they were coughing and drowning in their own blood. Years ago I remember coming across a note from Keats where he says he has started coughing blood again so he knows this is the end, there is no hope. It still makes my heart stand still.
Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Moira. My memories of Thanksgiving gatherings are not so good, love my quiet ones at home now, but still one of my favorite holidays. And there is much to be thankful for.ReplyDelete
Indeed, we need to concentrate on the positive. I hope you had a great day with your loved ones. I am joining some friends tonight for a late celebration (as today is a normal work day here, it's more sensible to delay the feast).Delete
Glad you appreciated it! I love the way she writes. She must have kept a diary.ReplyDelete
Yes she must. As ever with the sanatorium books, she makes little comment on some of the aspects that are most horrific to modern eyes, while being very funny about the usual in-ward bickering and disagreements with the staff. It WAS funny, but this book and the others I read have haunted me all year...Delete
Betty was a delightful and witty writer. Your readers might like to know that all four of Betty MacDonald's memoirs are now available on audio, co-produced and narrated by award winning Heather Henderson. "The Egg and I" was nomimated for a Voice Arts Award and the reviews for all of these audiobooks have been stellar. As one reviewer commented about "The Egg and I": "...The narration was spot on, I felt as though I was there shivering in that kitchen having a cup of coffee. When I started and realised it was about 9 hours long I thought it would take forever to hear it all when in fact I think I completed it in about 3 sessions because I was enthralled."ReplyDelete
Oh thanks for the information, that's good to know! I have been re-reading some of her other books, she was so talented, and gives such a great picture of life at her time and place.Delete
Oh, I must read one of her books. This reminds me that my father had a younger brother whom I never met because he died of TB during WWII. Another uncle survived having it then, too.ReplyDelete
Glad you had a good holiday. I was glad to be the recipient of a neighbor's generosity and good cooking, fun grandchildren and a dog who makes us "fetch."
Glad you had a good day. I saw a mix of US and English friends and we had a great time - it always reminds me of past Thanksgivings, here and in Seattle, which is particularly nice.Delete
And yes, we must remember the people whose lives were blighted by TB, and make sure it never happens again.