Mama’s Bank Account
is a novel by Kathryn Forbes, published in 1943. The story focuses on the thrift and practicality of “Mama,” the matriarch of a Norwegian family in early twentieth-century San Francisco. Katheryn Forbes was the pen name of author Kathryn McLean. Forbes’s parents emigrated to San Francisco from Norway, like the narrator’s parents. She started her career as a radio scriptwriter, then began to publish short stories and several novels.
The novel is narrated by Katrin, one of Mama’s daughters, as an adult reminiscing about her younger years in her family of Norwegian immigrants. The book is episodic, jumping from story to story about Mama’s ingenuity. The opening scene is one that took place weekly at their kitchen table: Papa gives the money he has earned that week to Mama. Mama counts the money and makes piles according to their expenses. When she is done, Papa asks, “Is all?” and Mama replies, “Is good. We do not need to go to the bank.” Mama has told the children—Nels, Christine, Katrin, and Dagmar—that she has a bank account with more money in it.
The children have seen other people evicted from their apartments when they couldn’t pay rent. But the children are confident that this could never happen to them: if Mama needs to, she will go to the bank and withdraw money.
Katrin jumps forward in time to when she is an adult. She tries to give Mama a check for her bank account. Mama refuses and admits she has never been inside a bank. Mama pretended to have a bank account so her children would never worry.
One year, money is tight, and Mama decides to rent out their front room. The family agrees only after Mama promises to use some of the income to buy herself a much-needed coat. They find a boarder, Mr. Hyde, but because Mama is an inexperienced landlady, she doesn’t ask for references or payment in advance. Mr. Hyde tutors Nels in Latin, and Nels’s grades improve. Mr. Hyde also tells the children stories and reads to them from Dickens and Shakespeare. Instead of getting into trouble with other boys, Nels is suddenly coming home early to hear the next chapter of Mr. Hyde’s book.
However, Mr. Hyde leaves abruptly one day and pays with a bad check. Mama cannot buy her fur coat after all, but she is not upset. Mr. Hyde has left his books behind and improved the children’s lives, and she considers that more than fair payment.
Dagmar, the youngest, is hospitalized for an illness. A nurse takes her away and tells Mama she is not allowed to visit at first. Mama does not understand, though the nurses try to explain it to her over and over. Then, Mama hatches a scheme. Mama takes off her hat and coat and pretends to be a janitor. She mops her way to Dagmar’s room so she can visit her little girl and reassure herself that all is well.
Mama loves San Francisco, and considers herself a San Franciscan, an American, rather than Norwegian. But the family leaves their house in the Castro when a salesman talks Papa into buying a chicken ranch across the Bay. The children are not enthusiastic about the move. They miss city life, and it’s clear that Mama and Papa do, too. Mama finagles a deal with another family, the Sondermans, to trade their boarding house for the chicken ranch. Now the family runs a boarding-house back in the city, just in time for the birth of their new sister, Kaaren.
Later, Papa becomes sick when an old work injury begins to affect him. He will need an operation as Dagmar did, but this one is more expensive. Mama visits the surgeon and talks to his unsympathetic wife, who complains of the renovations needed on their home. She ends up working out a deal: she will pay what she can, and make up the difference. Papa is a carpenter, and will work on the surgeon’s home for free if all goes well. The surgeon must perform successfully on Papa to be paid in full.
When Katrin graduates from her grade school, she tells Mama it is traditional in America to receive a graduation present. Mama gives Katrin her mother’s silver brooch. Rather than being grateful for the heirloom, Katrin is disappointed: she had her heart set on a dresser set. Mama listens, and Katrin gets her dresser set, but Papa tells Katrin later that Mama had to sell the brooch to do it. Katrin is ashamed; she knows how much the brooch meant to her mother. Katrin is able to trade her dresser set back for the brooch, but she must agree to work Saturdays for the shopkeeper, who is reluctant to sell. Katrin wears the brooch with pride.
Later, Christine graduates grade school but refuses to go on to high school. Instead, she gets a job. Mama is disappointed and wants her to get a good education. Every week, Christine piles her earnings on the kitchen table, offering them to Mama, but Mama refuses to take them. Then, Papa earns a little extra money and tells Mama it is time for her to buy the coat she has always meant to get. But Mama returns with a stack of textbooks for Christine: a complete high school course. Christine agrees to go back to school.
Later, Nels is on his way to becoming a doctor. He has a romance with a snobbish, well-to-do young woman, Cora Martin, and intends to marry her. Mama and Papa insist on visiting her family, who prove to be rude. Mrs. Martin checks her watch when they come to visit, and says she does not understand why “Nelson” is close to his family. Their son Rupert is spoiled, and they are ineffective at controlling him. The visit is unpleasant. Mama and Papa tell Nels they are worried that his future children will turn out like Rupert, but he is already sufficiently ashamed of the visit to end his relationship with Cora.
In the last chapter, Christine, now a nurse, is about to give birth to Mama and Papa’s first grandchild. There are late-stage complications, and everyone, including Christine, is afraid she might die. A sickly Christine begs Mama to take care of her child for her, but Mama pretends not to understand why. Mama tells her continuously that she will be fine. Finally, when lunch arrives for Christine, Mama starts to eat it, saying Christine must be too sick. Christine protests, and realizes she is feeling better than she thought. Mama has quelled her fears. She gives birth to a healthy baby and lives. Katrin asks Mama how she could have given birth five times, and Mama says, “It was good.”Mama’s Bank Account
remains Forbes’s best-known novel. In 1944, the book was adapted into John Van Druten’s stage play, “I Remember Mama.” Four years later, the play became a feature film starring Irene Dunne and Barbara Bel Geddes. Later, the film served as the inspiration for the TV series Mama
, which ran from 1949 to 1957. The novel also served as the inspiration for two separate stage musicals, one in 1972 and one in 1979.