When my daughters were in high school and studying the 20th century (we homeschooled) I included Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes in their schedules. The 20th century was not a pretty century and so many of the books, topics, themes, etc necessary to cover were anything but gentle which is why I made sure to include this book. In the midst of all the pain, suffering, conflict, and war that characterized the time period I wanted them to enjoy something light-hearted, a book that would cause them to smile, as well as give them an inside look at an immigrant family struggling to make ends meet. Unfortunately, I never got around to reading it myself so it was with great pleasure that I decided to read it now. The category it falls under is a 20th Century Classic.
Kathryn Forbes published the book in 1943 and it’s written as a memoir of childhood. It’s the story of Mama, who in the story is never named. Nobody addresses her as anything other than Mama.
Mama and Papa are first generation Norwegian Americans. Their citizenship papers are framed and hang proudly on the wall in their home. Mama is the central character around which everything and everyone revolves. It is she who holds things together. She is incredibly gentle and loving, while at the same time very strong and determined.
Every week when Papa brings home his pay the money would be counted out in little stacks; for the grocer, for the landlord, for whatever is needed in that particular week. And when the money is counted out and all the family financial needs are satisfied…
Mama would look up then and smile. “Is good,’ she’d murmur, “We do not have to go to the Bank.”
It was a wonderful thing, that Bank Account of Mama’s. We were all so proud of it. It gave us such a warm, secure feeling. No one else we knew had money in a big bank downtown.
The book has 17 chapters in which in one situation after another Mama saves the day. She comes to the rescue with her love and concern for her family. The time period is 1910’s – 1920’s San Francisco. In the book the family lives in 3 different residences and in two of the three they open their home to boarders in order to stretch the finances.
The family consists of Mama, Papa, Nels, Katrin (Kathryn), Christine, and Dagmar. Later a new baby, Kaaren, arrives to complete the family. The story covers a period of about 20 years in which the children grow up, choose careers, and (some) get married.
The characters are memorable:
Mama’s four sisters, Aunt Jenny, Aunt Sigrid, Aunt Marta, and Aunt Trina
because of his singular swarthiness and dark mustache but there were others in the family who maintained that old Uncle Chris was “black” in a different way. Notably in his heart.
“Uncle Elizabeth,” Dagmar’s pet tomcat.
And not to be forgotten is Aunt Elna…
There was little enough of drama in our lives, and we treasured every colorful detail we could glean about Great-aunt Elna. The story — spoken quickly in Norwegian, so that we children could not readily understand, or told in a hushed, shocked voice when we were considered out of hearing — was as exciting as any saga.
In chapter after chapter some kind of challenge faces Mama and always she manages to find loving solutions.
Dagmar needs surgery and hospital rules prevent Mama from being there post surgically, but that doesn’t stop her. How does she manage to be there for Dagmar?
Katrin wants to be a writer above anything else and finds an advertisement for a writing course that costs $7. That’s $7 she doesn’t have but she sends for it anyway. (Hard to imagine a company sending a book without receiving payment first!) What happens when she forgets to pay and Mama finds out?
Katrin’s class provides refreshments for a special guest and due to various circumstances it promises to be a disaster until Mama finds out. How does she save the day?
One of the boarders fails to pay the rent. How does Mama deal with the situation?
How does Mama respond to Katrin’s guilt when it is discovered she has been acting foolishly, helping herself to candy from the pharmacy where she worked part time?
Katrin expects and receives a certain 8th grade graduation gift from her family. How does she react when she comes to understand Mama’s role in the gift? (This was one of the chapters that brought tears to my eyes!)
How does Mama “save” Uncle Elizabeth, Dagmar’s tomcat when he is suffering so terribly?
Christine, the one child who wins academic awards, makes the decision to get a job rather than to enroll in “High” after graduation from 8th grade. How does Mama deal with Christine’s refusal to continue her education?
How does Mama react when she meets Nels’ fiance’s family and they treat her and the family rudely?
When I looked online for more information about Kathryn Forbes I discovered the story is not about her own life. She is not the actual Katrin of the story. Mama is modeled after her grandmother who immigrated to America in the late 19th century.
|Kathryn Forbes (1908-1966)|
And what of Mama’s bank account? How much money was securely saved in the big bank downtown? In the very first chapter Katrin tells us about the Bank Account. It is 20 years after the stories she will recount in the following pages. She is grown up and has just sold her first story. She hurries to Mama to give her a check, “to put in your Bank Account.”
And then and there Mama confesses…
“Is no account,” she said. “In all my life, I never been inside a Bank.”
And when I didn’t — couldn’t — answer, Mama said earnestly: “Is not good for little ones to be afraid — to not feel secure.”
All throughout the book everything Mama does is good for her “little ones.”
As with many wonderful books there was a film version made of the story in 1948, “I Remember Mama.” I have seen the movie a number of times over the years and you may have too. But while the film is delightful and the actors interpret their characters true to the book it leaves out quite a bit of the story.
So, sooner rather than later give yourself a little treat and read this book! If you want to smile, laugh out loud, and even shed a few tears this is definitely a book for you.