Today my son started fourth grade (yipe), and you know what that means: Time to study state history. In our case, that of course is California, which I love, and I’m excited because we’ve got a ton of history right in our own backyard. Our curriculum looks fairly awesome, too. Besides a Friday class at our charter school, we’ll be using Beautiful Feet’s study guide, which supplements regular history with appropriate fiction set in various periods. It’s a popular course, so just finding a set was a little touch and go, but we’ve got it ordered now, so it’s all good. Most of the books are familiar, like Island of the Blue Dolphins and By the Great Horn Spoon!, plus I plan on adding a few of my own. Well, at least one, anyway: Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes, a lightly fictionalized series of stories and vignettes about her family.
This book all but fell in my lap one day when I was browsing around on Amazon. I have George Stevens’s I Remember Mama on my wish list, and Mama’s Bank Account is the book on which it was based. Smart (and scary) Amazon. I looked it over, and thought, “Norwegian American family. Turn of the twentieth century. San Francisco. Hmmm.” My husband’s family is part Norwegian, and we were both born in the Bay Area. My son will be studying California history. Ding.
Once I got it, I raced through the book in only a couple of hours, and when it was over I scoured the blank pages, hoping for more, because I enjoyed the characters immensely. The first chapter was the family sitting around the kitchen table counting out the expenses from Papa’s earnings. If all the family’s needs–and maybe a few wants–were met, Mama would say, “Is good. We do not have to go to the bank.” This scene makes it into the film almost verbatim, though it’s woven throughout instead of presented at the kickoff. It sets the tone for the entire book (and the movie, for that matter): the family working in harmony, everyone doing the best they can, with Mama imparting wisdom and modeling strength to and for her children.
Those who have seen I Remember Mama will recognize big chunks of Mama’s Bank Account. Nils going on to High, Dagmar and her earache, loudmouthed but goodhearted Uncle Chris and the aunts, Kathryn wanting a dresser set for graduation–a lot of familiar parts are here. Books that have been made into films or other mediums sometimes become nearly unrecognizable in transit (*cough* Since You Went Away *cough* ) or else stick too close (ahem, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), but Mama isn’t one of them. However, there was quite a bit more in this book that was new and just as delightful. The Hansens moved briefly to a chicken farm outside of the city for the usual reasons. Sunshine! Fresh air! We can set our own hours! The reality was somewhat less than idyllic, though, and before long they ended up swapping the farm with an elderly couple who had a giant house on Steiner Street. Mama being Mama, she devised a scheme to rent out all the extra rooms. This naturally ushered in a host of colorful extra characters, such as two brothers, Sam and George Stanton, who worked for PG & E, and Miss Durant, who ate only raw vegetables. The two men made a bet to see who could be the first to get Miss Durant to eat a medium rare steak. Sam not only won, but he and Miss Durant got married.
Mama doesn’t completely dominate Mama’s Bank Account, even though she’s the title character. Being the narrator, Kathryn’s role is also pretty substantial. She and Christine went to Windford, a snooty girls’ school after the family moved back to San Francisco, and the teachers weren’t thrilled when they found out the Hansen girls were Norwegian. As far as they were concerned, Norwegians and Swedes were one and the same. Uncle Chris didn’t see it that way–in his view, Swedes were Norwegians with their brains knocked out. All that aside, the girls were on the fringe until one day when the school held a tea for a distinguished visitor, and Mama showed up as well bearing meatballs. The book details a little of Kathryn’s struggle to be a writer, and her after-school job at the drugstore, where the candy got just a little too tempting. On a random note, I also really enjoyed the part when one of the aunts makes Papa’s favorite fancy pressed cookies, and I had to laugh because I knew exactly what they were: sandbakkels. My mother-in-law makes these at Christmastime, and if you ever get a chance to try them, go for it. Yum.
Mama’s Bank Account was published in 1943, and people immediately took to it. In fact, the book was so popular that it was modified into every media format of the time. The rendering most of today’s audiences are familiar with is the film, but the book spawned a stage play just before that. There was also a Lux Radio Theatre adaptation and a Cavalcade of America episode, “Citizen Mama”, not to mention a long-running TV show, Mama. For a public steeped in the Second World War and its aftermath, Kathryn Forbes’s quiet, pretty stories of the Hansen family must have been like a tonic.
At the risk of seeming preachy (and I won’t get too specific), contemporary culture has gone downhill fast. There’s plenty of vulgarity, jadedness, and identity is fluid in certain circles. It’s one of the saddest things ever. People who don’t know who they are have nothing to live for, or they live for the moment and nothing beyond. This type of thinking is almost like an opioid, and just as dangerous, since a society with this mindset invariably marginalizes beauty and substance. When these qualities are found, those who are aware treasure them like cultured pearls. It’s one of the reasons I love museum work and why I’m determined to help my son be aware of the lessons learned by our family and what his heritage is. History is an amazing portrait of human nature. What’s more, I believe true identity is found in knowing Jesus Christ, and this is very much a part of my family’s heritage as well.
As Nora Ephron once wrote, “What do they call it when everything intersects?” Only in this case, the answer isn’t the Bermuda Triangle. There may be a lot that’s wrong with our current society, but books like Mama’s Bank Account are wonderful reminders of what can be made right. I’m looking forward to reading this book with my son, and it may be tough to wait until we get to the twentieth-century part of our study.